my head is filled with disease.
my skin is begging you please.
i’m on my hands and knees.
i want so much to believe.
-Nine Inch Nails
I was inspired by a friend’s writing about the development of her faith to write about the loss of my own.
At age 12, I was a devout believer and child of God. My belief in Christianity was like my belief in the air I breathed – I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there, truth as solid as the ground I walked on. I prayed constantly, read scripture, and every time I looked at the sky I saw heaven. With all that came a strict lifestyle and frame of mind – wholehearted pledges of womanly modesty and grace until the day I die, and total chastity until I married the God-fearing man that had he had already chosen for me the day I was born. And of course, unwavering fealty to the Republican party – which I knew nothing about, except it was the right one and the godly one. I believed it all like I believed in gravity.
At age 26, all that is simply gone. A gaping hole that’s been filled with odds and ends that keep the weather out until I hardly notice it’s there. I don’t think about God or Jesus very often – this thing, this person who used to be my daily companion, friend, father, disciplinarian, punisher, captor, savior. I loved him back them, but after all these years, I don’t miss him very much.
How does something so important, so central to a person’s identity and worldview just disappear? Do you just wake up one day and it’s gone, and you simply go on living your life as a smug, enlightened, well-adjusted nonbeliever without missing a beat?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know for me and for many others with similar upbringings, losing your faith isn’t like getting a tooth pulled. It’s like someone reaching into your chest and cutting out a piece of your still-beating heart, you grasp and flail and struggle, you almost bleed to death but somehow you survive and bit by bit, day by day, you fight pain and sickness until one day you are whole again.
When I was 12, my grandfather suddenly got very ill with pancreatic cancer.
I often stayed with my grandparents during school vacations or on weekends. He was a Korean War veteran and didn’t talk too much, but used to read the comics — or the “funnies” as we called them — every Sunday morning with a cup of black coffee. Although he was quiet and reserved, my grandfather volunteered as an usher for his church; he wore a big smile with his brown tweed suit as he greeted the churchgoers at the door with a welcoming handshake and a pamphlet for the day’s message.
When he got ill, I was thrown into a mire of anxiety and confusion. I thought maybe God made a mistake, since my grandfather wasn’t old enough to die, or that’s what I thought anyways. Or maybe God was just testing to see how hard I would pray. I decided it was the latter: God definitely wanted me to pray. So pray I did, from sunup to sunset, while I went to school, while I did my homework. I scribbled hundreds of little prayers in my notebook. But there he was still in the hospital, yellow with jaundice. I hardly recognized him.
So I prayed harder. Perhaps this case was too great for me to handle on my own. It required Prayer 2.0. I headed to the World Wide Web and found a Christian forum for prayer requests. There I told the Christian netizens about my grandfather’s plight and requested prayers. I collected hundreds of them and bound them into a little book. My grandfather smiled. I wonder if he believed as strongly as I did that this book would save him. I thought, if God wouldn’t grant the prayer of just one person maybe he would listen to hundreds praying for the same thing.
At the funeral, I felt very hollow and old. I couldn’t understand why God would let my grandfather die like that. Deep inside I was angry. It was the first major crack in my unwavering faith in Jesus, but I still believed. In the end I thought, only God knows why he did that, and it’s not for me to judge. After all, death comes to everyone in its time.
One crack down. A million little cracks were to come. A few stand out in my memory.
1. A torrent of books.
As a child I devoured books with the same enthusiasm that my grandfather ate apple pie, and once I got started with any series, topic, or philosophical line of reasoning, I couldn’t stop. My best friend had the same thirst for the printed page and we exchanged endless texts and thoughts about life, the universe, and everything.
There are enough atheist blogs discussing the philosophical problems of Christianity and I don’t want this to be one of them.
Suffice it to say, after reading hundreds of books including the holy books of several different religions, I became very, very confused and lost. The preacher’s words coming from the pulpit no longer sounded so sound. It seemed to me that he was corralling the congregation into a boat full of holes and pretending they weren’t there. I talked to the pastor often about these holes, hoping desperately he had the answers, but I was never satisfied.
2. My father’s repeated vacations from sanity; my parents’ tight ship.
I told this story in detail in another post. My father suffers from bipolar disorder and there were a number of very traumatic experiences in which he developed psychotic delusions that he was a prophet sent by god and the end times were near. During these times, he poured obsessively over scripture, not sleeping day or night, finding patterns, commands, and prophesies. He attempted to execute these in his own life as literally as possible. This resulted in doing a lot of things to terrify me and put himself and others in danger. My days were filled with anxiety – what would he find in the Bible next?
After all this, I became even more sensitive to the literal word of scripture. If my father could interpret it in such awful and terrifying ways, what would I find in my own examination? How was it possible to know what “literal” meant? I dissected scripture myself to the point that seeing it produced deep anxiety and fear. All sureness, confidence, and sense of security in the Word had vanished.
Furthermore, my parents ruled their household strictly based on fundamentalist biblical principles – or at least those they got from their Church and the Republican party. The books they read advocated strict traditional parenting: no boys, parties, rock music, R-rated movies, etc etc. Of course, as a normal teenager, I felt oppressed and restricted. My violations of their rules were never treated as normal trespasses borne out of human curiosity, but rather as moral failures: they cried, screamed at me, warned me of God’s wrath. They saw me as lost and under the hand of the Devil. And I believed it.
3. My abominable sexuality.
I’m bisexual: I am attracted to both women and men. Discovering this fact about myself as a conservative, fundamentalist Christian teenager was one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to live through, and it really shouldn’t have been.
Now I look back in sadness about the torture I went through and put myself through. Most of that is gone – I don’t sit in the bathroom punishing myself anymore for impure thoughts about women. I don’t think homosexuality is a sickness or an abomination anymore.
But at the time, that was my reality: a reality fed to me from my church, my parents’ homophobic rants, high school bullies, and conservative talk radio. I woke up every morning to disgust with myself, I dreamed only of torture and death, and knew I deserved it. I tried to pray and follow god and carry my cross honorably, but the gap kept widening. God became at best far and impersonal, at worst an evil sadist.
4. Physical and mental suffering.
A combination of genes and experience ensured that I grew up neurotic, anxious, and depressed, sometimes so severely I was unable to leave the house.
But on top of this, I developed serious issues with chronic pain due to a skeletal abnormality that left me in pain day and night despite the doctors’ attempts to help me. Sometimes I could hardly think, but also couldn’t sleep either. It was a like a constant drip in the back of my mind so everything was fuzzy. It was hard to connect to friends let alone God.
I tried with all my might to believe it was a part of God’s plan. Or to have faith that he could make me well. A pastor at a friend’s church poured oil on my head while praying for me, hands shaking, voice trembling. I felt nothing. The pain continued. I felt abandoned.
5. Open arms of secular people in college.
After I entered college, I met people that gradually helped me lift a lot of these burdens from my heart – kind, open secular people who weren’t afraid to admit they didn’t believe. Some of them had been raised without religion, but others had lost theirs. Being around them and treated like a respectable, valuable, intelligent person despite my sexuality and my loss of faith opened my eyes. It was the final nail in the coffin: there was love and openness here in my new community. I could see for the first time with clarity how bereft of love and compassion the Christian community I had left had been. I couldn’t go back because I would never survive, so I left, I went forward.
Since that time I have identified as an atheist or a person without religion. I’ve been presented with definitions of God that I could say I believe in, but never found any reason to name these concepts “God”, and so I remain atheist.
Although I don’t believe anymore, my upbringing left a “God-shaped hole” in my heart. It’s something I was taught about as a child – that all nonbelievers have a God-shaped hole in their hearts until they fill it with Jesus. But now, I don’t think that’s true at all, except for some ex-Christians like myself. When you are nurtured on something from an early age and your identity forms around it, it can leave a hole when it’s gone. For a while, I struggled with finding meaning in anything. I deeply resented religion for everything I felt it had done to me. Gradually I filled the hole with other things: friendship, love, music, the awe of nature.
I’m not proud of the hatred of religion that I carried with me for years after I became an atheist. It imbued my heart with a prejudice that limited my ability to connect with religious friends and family and was hard to break free from. Through many experiences with truly kind and open religious people since then, I’ve slowly but surely gained a new perspective. I know now that not all religious communities are stifling and punitive like the one I grew up in; there are those that allow people to thrive, create, and grow without shame or fear. And I know, too, that atheism is no panacea for the ills of the world; societal problems like racism and sexism don’t originate in religion, but in the human heart – and man created religion in his own image.
Despite this long journey from a person of religion to a person completely without it, some things haven’t changed. Something I never got rid of, and probably never will, is the never-ending weight of right and wrong, and punishment and sacrifice. It stems from years of obsession over sin and atonement. No matter what I do in life and what ideologies I might subscribe to, I obsess about my own wrongdoing and reflexively try to atone for my sins. I dream of terror and judgement.
My life may be happier now, but deep down, tenets of Christianity are lodged deep inside me like shrapnel covered in thick scar tissue. It’s in my nature.
It’s not leaving me anytime soon.