Living in the South carries with it, at times, a peculiar set of conventional norms used to mediate conversations. One such norm is a query concerning one’s home church. This question should not be considered a “test” to validate one’s membership to the club of Jesus Christ, but rather, as a part of the social fabric so deeply accepted as to be just as innocuous as asking someone where they shop for groceries. In the end, there may be gripes about selection and price points (or pastors and worship music choices), but most interlocutors expect that the other shops for groceries (or attends church). This query manifests itself with a variety of language depending upon one’s distinct subgroup, but the community of nonbelievers remains small and mostly underground. In light of this expectation, one question often lobbed at me as a more outspoken atheist, is what lead to me becoming an atheist. This query should be treated with some level of skepticism partly because its origins stem from trying to link the atheist story with a religious one. Nearly all members of the Christian tribe possess and recount a unique “testimony” or story that chronicles their coming to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The desire that others have for me to have a story is rarely an attempt at genuine understanding as to why I consider the thesis of theism problematic, and more an attempt to garner exactly where I deviated from The Way. They most often want to pinpoint an emotional moment (usually the culprit is anger with the church or pastors) that lead to my “downfall” because that comports with their emotional moment that led to their acceptance of their faith. Few entered in the faith as a result of considered reasoning (and often those who apply reasoning to their faith did so after the fact as a way to justify those beliefs), so few expect that reasoned arguments could drive someone away.
While the transition occurred slowly for me, I have often reduced it to simply saying that I left Christianity because I took it seriously. This assertion is not meant to suggest that some aspects of the church weren’t frustrating (they certainly were), and it does not mean that everyone who takes the faith seriously necessarily departs from its prescripts (that obviously is not the case). Rather, my desire to be a Christian was one that stemmed from a genuine desire to seek truth and to not be wrong any longer than I had to be. I imagined a version of myself much better than me, and I hoped that, through Jesus, I could become that imagined version. I’ll try and unpack this development a bit further, but suffice it to say, I never decided to become an atheist; one day I just realized that I was one.
It seems easiest to mark the progression of my faith by the different books that subtly shifted my thinking. At the tail end of middle school, I read a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris and decided that if I wanted to be godly, I needed to give up the thing that as a teenage boy I most desired: girls. While I cannot say that I remained steadfast in my pledge to kiss dating goodbye, I was steadfast in the desire to give God primacy. Alongside Harris’ text, I read the apocalyptic series Left Behind, and I felt the need to spread the gospel and even, with love, attempted to foist my beliefs on others. [Insert obligatory apology to those who put up with my high school self, especially one truly honorable gentleman who remains a close friend to this day here.] While from the outside I’m confident I appeared self-righteous, on the inside, I wrestled with wanting to be right. Upon entering college, I joined an association called Campus Crusade for Christ and happened upon a copy of Blue Like Jazz from Donald Miller. I quickly joined North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta after passing it on the street and immediately contacted the youth minister so that I could join his team.
I worked relentlessly during those undergrad years to try and spread the gospel and stay heavily involved. All the while, Miller’s book, along with my experiences at North Avenue and brief encounters with Passion Conferences and 7:22 at North Point Community Church, molded me into a solid Christ follower dedicated to the mission. That is not to say that I did not “stumble” in my “walk” from time to time–those are Christian terms for failing to live up to the Christian ideals–, but those experiences helped craft my perceptions of the world in profound ways. Eventually, I happened upon a book by Shane Claiborne called The Simple Way, and I again found myself gently seemingly transformed by the gospel. I adopted a position that the real power of the gospel was not about salvation in the next world, but salvation in this one. The gospel could bridge the gap between the picture of who I was with the image of who I wanted to be. I felt I could do this because it would no longer be me living, but it would be Christ living through me. I had transformed from a traditional conservative Christian to a socially-minded liberal one not as a result of my liberal college but as a consequence of the liberating gospel. At the time, even though it seems so obvious now, I did not recognize the radical paradigm shift that occurred in me, and I chalked it up to deepening faith. I contended that real faith led to social justice, and true Jesus followers were social liberals who were marked by compassion. I spent countless hours sitting in the back of Ebenezer Baptist listening to audio recordings of Dr. King’s sermons moved by what I saw as the power of the gospel for radical social change.
One rainy afternoon after leaving Ebenezer Baptist Church having just heard a particularly moving sermon on its crackling speakers, I removed my phoBirkenstocks and trekked barefoot back the four miles to my apartment consumed by guilt intermingled with resolve. When I reached my room, I stood, dripping, in the middle of my room staring at the movie posters which filled the walls of my room and felt sickened. I felt sickened by the money spent on those posters, on the many tickets to movie theaters, and, ultimately, sickened by all of the money that I had spent on non-essentials. In a rage, I tore the posters off the walls, ripped them to shreds, collapsed on the floor, and wept, praying for hours that I would be changed by the gospel until I passed out on my floor. I woke up damp and reinvigorated for the cause. By the next week, I had invited a homeless man to stay in my apartment with me. I was beginning to live the gospel. That transformation would last for about a month.
In my final spring and summer semesters of college, a fellow gospel advocate and myself were selected to act as interim youth pastors for North Avenue. Initially excited about the opportunity to challenge the kids with the power of the gospel by helping them to engage in social justice projects, I quickly encountered stiff resistance. Instead of a summer diving into serving the needs of the Atlanta community, we were primarily instructed to facilitate student fellowship. So I took them to a summer camp and took them whitewater rafting. They called me JWa, and I loved them. But I felt angry. It may be that the seeds of initial doubt formulated in this space. I condemned the church for not living up to the mission of Christ and which I viewed as urging followers to show love to neighbors in need. In fairness, it’s not an accurate to say that North Avenue didn’t reach out to their neighbors in need, but that was not, in their mind, the mission of the youth ministry. Perhaps that was fair. Nonetheless, bitterness capped off my experience at North Avenue, and after that summer had ended they hired a full-time minister, and I officially changed church homes.
It is here is where most of my Christian friends identify the anger that caused my emotional reason for my departure from the church. But, in retrospect, I don’t think I was angry at the church. I had assumed that followers of the gospel necessarily would recognize and be committed to the need for social justice. One quick glance around this country should have been sufficient to reach that conclusion much earlier, but often our best hopes for the world can blind us to its realities. Nevertheless, the real reason I reacted emotionally was that I realized that the gospel did not have the transformative power. My anger derived from the fact that my worldview had slowly unraveled before me. If the gospel wasn’t transformative, then it lacked utility. That radical paradigm shift became ever so clear, and I realized there was no authority to determine whether my newer social justice reading of the text outweighed the older conservative version. Both readings, as well as a plethora of others, found sufficient support in the text and no particular interpretation carries more weight than another. I began to view the gospel that I had accepted by faith through a more critical lens and, ultimately, realized that little objective reason existed for me to maintain it.
Even so, I held onto faith for some time. I don’t know when I officially “became an atheist,” it seems somewhat ridiculous to say that I became a label that possesses no concrete meaning save for what it denies. Similarly, I don’t know exactly when I became a Santa denier, but neither non-belief radically changed my life. As they say, it didn’t go with a bang, but it went with a whimper. When I realized that my belief in any god had vanished, I initially thought it necessary to live as forceful an atheist as I had once lived a Christian. Impressed by the vigor with which people like the Four Horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) attacked religion, I realized over time that reasoning doesn’t counter faith because reasoning isn’t its source. While I’ll never shy away from arguing about that lack of utility of religion and its nonsensicalness, I do so now with much less fervor.
I am still a contradiction now (my idealized self still differs from real one), but I live in that contradiction with much less guilt. Accepting my failures, I now try to create barriers for myself to restrict behavior about myself that I dislike rather than trying to rely on the power of Christ within me. I’m happier now if only because I am much less guilty. So, I am embarking on a mission. I want to retread those old pages. Dusting off the pages of the New Revised Standard Version and a Student Bible that I wore heavily in college, I want to see the text with fresh eyes. Reasoned eyes. I want to visit those pages that I marked and highlighted with furry and see if perhaps there remains something to be gleaned, or perhaps at times, necessarily mocked. I don’t pretend to be an objective reader, but I vow to be an honest one as often as possible. It’s a new walk upon which I now venture, and I hope you’ll join me there.