I’m not sure which my parents would be more upset about – that I voted for Barack Obama or that I am now an atheist. The struggle to come to terms with my beliefs was a long, difficult process that took me through the depths of depression and back. I didn’t want to be an atheist. I wanted God to be real. I want church. I miss church. But I have to truthful to myself and to those around me. I can’t live a lie. I have come to terms, though critical thinking and intellectual honesty, what I know is true: There is no God.
Growing up, I was very active in a Southern Baptist church from grade school though college. I became well versed in Southern Baptist theology and served in music, Vacation Bible School, domestic and international mission trips, and youth leadership in my church. I truly believed in God with all my heart, with all my mind, and with all my soul.
I always thought that Christians became atheists because they were mad a God. Surely it is an act of rebellion against giving God total control of their life. The complete opposite happened to me.
I drifted away from the faith for several years, but then I discovered several progressive Christian writers such as Shane Claiborne and Donald Miller, and I felt a renewed zeal to study the Bible and pursue my personal relationship with God. It's funny that this pursuit of God led to my atheism.
Several years ago I traveled to Japan and China and visited Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and it occurred to me that these people that I was meeting and getting to know have morals and ethics often as great as or greater than most Christians I know. I read Confucius Lives Next Door by T.R. Reid and pondered how can so many Asians have such high moral standards, lower crime rates, stronger communities and families, all without Jesus? Around this same time, over the span of several years, I began to learn more about the world around me. When I was little, God was bigger than I could imagine and there was no truth, no morality outside God. One day I came across this thought exercise: “If God told you to kill someone, would you do it?” Of course the answer would be that God would never ask me to do that. “But if he did tell you, that it was for the greater good, part of his plan?” I would have to answer no. My morals would never allow me to take another life. I’m a firm believer in non-violence and pacifism. At this moment, I was almost shocked to realize what this means: my values go beyond God – go deeper than God. It is as if God got a little smaller, or the universe as I know it got a little larger.
As I studied the Bible more, the more issues with theology I discovered. Perhaps the greatest issue I had was with salvation, or simply “who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.” If salvation is though faith in Jesus alone, then it is unjust to condemn those who have never heard the Gospel, and equally unfair if these people get a “free pass” while those who, to varying degrees, have heard the Gospel are judged. The more and more I learned about the world, the more I disagreed with the exclusivity of faith in Christ. Somebody who earnestly says a prayer accepting Jesus, then goes about life as usual, is more deserving of heaven than a Buddhist monk who dedicates his entire life to feeding the poor and clothing the needy, and caring for the sick? After all, Matthew 25 pretty plainly states that those who do “unto the least of these” are rewarded with heaven and those who selfishly do not are condemned. How do you reconcile “faith alone” with this teaching? How does simply saying a prayer supersede this? Maybe just praying the “Sinner’s prayer” and repenting of sins is not enough.
Jesus teaches that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” America is the richest nation on earth, run by greed and a desire to horde wealth. The average American household makes over $50,000.00 a year while much of the world lives on two dollars a day. In fact, Americans spend more on trash bags in a year than most people in third world countries spend on all their purchases. Churches are no different, building hundred-thousand dollar basketball gyms and installing thirty-thousand dollar multi-media systems. A hundred and thirty five million people are expected to die by 2020 due to lack of clean drinking water. Basic sanitation could be provided for most of these people for around ten billion dollars. It sounds like a lot until you consider that Americans will spend nearly 450 billion on Christmas presents this year alone. If what Jesus said about the rich was true, then virtually no American, or even any church in America, deserves to enter the Kingdom of God. In a just world, America deserves to be punished.
I thought that perhaps I am a Universalist – that there are many paths in life and all people will be reconciled to God eventually. But if this is true, then why is there a need to believe in God anyway? What’s the difference, as long as I seek to live out the message of Matthew 25 and seek to “love my neighbor as myself?”
Still, I tried fervently to seek God in spite of growing doubts. I wanted to believe that he existed. I prayed that he would show me the way. I prayed until I cried, begging that he would restore my faith. I read more Christian books and studied the Bible. Eventually I accepted what my heart and mind was telling me – there is not God. It’s not that I didn’t believe in Jesus’ teaching, but that his divinity and the existence of a God seemed increasingly unlikely in light of what I was learning about the world around me. I never stopped believing in the Bible in the sense that it is the greatest source of moral truth in my life. Jesus’ teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25 form the basis of my ethics. I will always follow my conscience and seek peace, justice, equality for all people through love.I guess some Christians will say it is okay – people take many paths and all people will be reconciled to God eventually. Some will say that I’ll eventually “come back around.” Some will say that I was never a Christian to begin with. My faith was completely real to me. I was certain that God heard and answered my prayers. I felt his supernatural presence in still quiet moments of worship. But now I realize that it was just a creation of my own mind. I want to be honest with myself and use reason and logic, not blind faith, to explore the world. Life as a human being is very precious, and it is something to be cherished. I want to spend my life creating “heaven” on earth for the “least of these.” I hope Christians will truly follow the teachings of Jesus work with me to do just that.