Christians criticize atheists for talking about religion so much, but it affects all of us. And for those of us who devoted years of our lives to god before losing him? Well, we have more to say than most. We share our stories not only to reach out to others, but to keep explaining all the ways we are misunderstood. Because we have to live together.
I’ll admit that when I try to put into words for the millionth time why prayer lost meaning for me, or how I came to the conclusion that the Bible cannot be trusted- yes, it sounds like I am saying Christians are wrong. But what would you like me to do? People disagree about a lot of different things. Discussing our individual viewpoints is hardly a sign that we secretly disagree with ourselves.
I read a post over at The Isaiah 53:5 Project that really hit that “misunderstood” nerve, and I’m wondering what you all think about this. I was compelled to write a response because of the ways I both did and did not relate to it. And I think it is an interesting look into how our brains work. Here are his opening paragraphs:
I was an atheist at one time. And like many atheists, the issue of people believing in God bothered me greatly. What is it about atheists that we would spend so much time, attention, and energy refuting something that we don’t believe even exists? What causes us to do that?
When I was an atheist, I attributed my intentions as caring for those poor, delusional people…to help them realize their hope was completely ill-founded. To be honest, I also had another motive. As I challenged those who believed in God, I was deeply curious to see if they could convince me otherwise. Part of my quest was to become free from the question of God. If I could conclusively prove to believers that they were wrong, then the issue is off the table, and I would be free to go about my life.
Okay, it is clear that this post is out to minimize atheism. Most of us may not relate to James’ experience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t genuine. Plenty of Christians were not born into religion and this sounds like a typical salvation story. Heck, this was the story half my Christian friends told. The rest had believed for as long as they could remember. When most Christians think of atheists, this is how they imagine us.
My past is quite the opposite from what James describes. As a child I went to church and believed in god. Was I troubled by atheists? Yes. But only because there was so much pressure on me to save them. I imagine some of you were believers and very stressed by atheists for the same reasons James was bothered by Christians. The concept that any of us would be bothered by others who challenged our worldview is not hard to figure out. And it applies to everything, not just religion.
James describes a desire to remove hope from those he believed were delusional. I cannot relate to that part at all. Obviously as a Christian I thought I was offering hope, but as an atheist? I understand Christianity too well to think of it that way. And since I have never been an atheist without full understanding of Christian belief, I guess I will just have to take his word on that motive.
“Part of my quest was to become free from the question of God.”
Down the road I faced my own quest; same question, except I was looking for the opposite answer. And instead of challenging atheists (as many do), I looked deeper into Christian apologetics to answer my specific concerns. I was sure I would find the answers I needed just as I had always been able to before. I, too, wanted to be free of that nagging feeling that was no less relentless. Of course, in my case I never once considered that feeling might be coming from god himself.
Which brings us to the part of James’ post that bothered me the most:
I didn’t realize that the reason the topic of God weighed so heavily on my mind, was because God was pressing the issue. I have come to find out that God wants to be known. He created us with the intention that we would know him. He has surrounded us with evidence of himself and he keeps the question of his existence squarely before us. It was as if I couldn’t escape thinking about the possibility of God.
In fact, the day I chose to acknowledge God’s existence, my prayer began with, “Ok, you win…” It might be that the underlying reason atheists are bothered by people believing in God is because God is actively pursuing them.
And just like that, we lost every ex-Christian in the audience. I have often asked Christians what it would take for them to stop believing in god. Would it be easy? Would you desperately seek god, or just give up at the first sign of doubt? There is a reason Christians have a difficult time believing that an atheist was ever as faithful a servant to god as they are, but we know that these faithful servants do lose faith. It happens every day. And it doesn’t happen lightly.
Think back on that time when you were most desperate to hold on to your belief in god. When you prayed more faithfully than ever before just for anything that would lead to better understanding of how to strengthen your grip. And nothing happened. The more you looked for him, the less any of it made sense. You did everything right and he simply wasn’t there. What next?
Now imagine if a Christian had said to you: “He created us with the intention that we would know him.” Hell, someone probably did say that to you. Seek and ye shall find, right? If there is one thing that all ex-Christians have in common, it is the knowledge of how meaningless those words are. So when James sums that thought up with:
“It might be that the underlying reason atheists are bothered by people believing in God is because God is actively pursuing them.”
I laughed out loud. Christians might applaud this brilliant observation, but it makes us feel invisible. It was this kind of useless logic in my time of doubt that forced me to stop seeking advice from Christians and start looking at what atheists had to say. Especially the ones who used to believe. That’s where I finally found the answers that allowed me to move forward.
Shouldn’t we be the atheists Christians are always talking about? Or what about those who claim to feel everything Christians do about god and yet somehow serve another god? Christians cannot understand us and so they minimize us. They want to take us off the table, too.
All they achieve are more Christians getting poor answers about what it means to doubt. They tell themselves stories about atheists they can wrap their minds around, and then comfort themselves with that shared feeling that god is all around them. Always pursuing them. When your faith is intact, it works. It renews what is already there.
Remember that feeling? I sure do.
The first time I knew god was pursuing me I was already a believer. I was a teenager, but I knew I wasn’t living my life fully for god. I went to church. I read my Bible. The thought was heavy on my heart. I made a commitment to god that was life-changing. I felt his guidance and was amazed at how my prayers for that guidance were always answered. I wanted to live a life of service to him.
That feeling lasted for about fifteen years before the feeling changed. Was the feeling of doubt different? No. Which is why I assumed it was also supernatural. I thought Satan was attacking me because my faith was so strong. It seems silly now, but it sure did take a while to figure out. I couldn’t trust my own reasoning out of fear that it was a trick. But once I allowed myself to consider that god and Satan did not exist, suddenly the feeling could not possibly be mistaken for either of them.
I feel something similar with everything in life. My career, politics, parenting…. sometimes it’s like a combination of superstition and anxiety. Sometimes it’s calm and content. I feel it the most when I have been procrastinating. But it isn’t god. If it is, then apparently god is interested in every part of my life except for the part about me believing in him. That would be weird.
If there is one thing I have learned in my interactions with others on this topic, it is that belief is a very personal thing. What we want to believe or can believe is different for each of us. What makes sense to one person may not make sense to even a sibling who grew up in the same environment. How we reason, what we prefer, who we admire- anything can be a factor. I have no doubt that James feels happier with his found truth, but I feel the same way about mine.
The fact that our world is filled with so many different beliefs makes it difficult to accept that there is a god who wishes to be known. Some people are atheists, theists, or nothing at all…. and they never care to think about that choice. It isn’t important. Other people believe in the story that sounds nicest whether it seems possible or not.
And then some of us have spent overwhelming time dreaming of philosophical puzzles and arguments for what is true. We care deeply and we want to know what’s real. We will be the first to tell you that faith is not a choice at all. And for us, it isn’t.
We have so much in common. And yet here we are on two different sides of truth. Each of us equally wanting to be understood.