This is a story of a faith made of threads and how they began to unravel: little threads unwinding, the work of time and experience. To understand the un-doing, you have to understand what there was to un-do.
The work started when I was young. What starts belief in God? For me, it was being taught from a young age that God is Real, and he is watching. My parents did the work to ensure the first thread was in place: God is Real. When I was young, I imagined God as a person. Cue image of Man with a Beard in the Clouds. God was very much alive, watching, listening, and working. God was there when adults misunderstood me: God knew what I had meant, but didn’t get a chance to explain due to authoritarian parenting style. God was also the person who made us go to church every Sunday, though I always wanted to sleep in.
The second thread: “Jesus is Real. And when you hear about Jesus, you need to feel grateful for what he did for you, to Save your Soul.” Jesus was a person, too, maybe distinct from God and maybe not due to the whole trinity concept. So in my child’s brain Jesus and God were two/one person(s) who I prayed to, who listened from a distance, who I earnestly believed in.
A crucial third thread, because a cord of three strands is not quickly broken: “Hell is Real, and you might go there if you’re not good enough.” Maybe the stated message wasn’t about being good, and instead about having enough faith, but my internalized message confused the two points. I had to trust God, go to church, and try to believe and act the Right Way in order to be saved. And don’t forget: “Hell is real, and your friends will go there if they are not saved too.”
Another important childhood thread is the belief in literal, 7-day creationism. God created the world in 7 days about 6000 years ago, and evolution is an evil lie told by Satan to take people away from God. Though it was one of the first threads, it was one of the last to unravel.
So I went with my childhood threads, understanding that God and Jesus are Real and I can have a relationship with him/them, understanding that they can talk to me, but Satan can also talk to me and tell me lies. I believed, but sometimes became frustrated with these facts and how little they had to do with my everyday elementary school life.
If the first threads were facts I believed because I was taught to believe them, the next threads were interpretations of emotional experiences that I internalized into facts. The first marked a “revival” or recommitment when I was around 11 or 12: just starting youth group. If you’ve heard stories about intense emotional experiences happening during alter calls, and someone telling you that it’s God, then you have some idea about this. I cried, I collapsed, I surrendered. This marked my ownership of my faith – it was no longer what I was told to believe, it was what I was committing to and defining for myself. That’s about when I decided to read the Bible through, which I did 3 times as a teenager.
Oh, the teenage years. The middle school years marked a peak in my faith rivaled only by a last surge of a few months before I became an atheist.
This period of my faith is difficult to describe and painful to remember. Faith became very important to me. I attended church three times a week and wore this fact as a badge of honor. I made certain that all of my friends knew I was a Christian. I invited friends to church and youth group events, and attended events at friends’ churches as well.
I will attempt to paint a picture of youth group at my church. There is a small room with fluorescent lighting and donated, old, mismatched couches. This is the site of Sunday evening meetings, lock-ins, pizza parties, 48-hour fasts, and New Year’s Eve parties (remember Y2K? Some pranksters turned out all the lights and unplugged the TV right at midnight). Youth pastors are young, male, bearded, and most likely attending a small Christian college that follows the Wesleyan tradition and has strict rules like forbidding its students from dancing. Adding that my two older siblings attended youth group before me, all of this combined to give youth group a high coolness factor, and I was totally sucked in.
Now, on to content of lessons:
- Sex, and that you should not have sex, and that you have to avoid any and all situations that might lead to sex, but you can’t stop thinking about it because everyone keeps talking about it. There’s the metaphor of the apple with the bite taken out because you’re “impure.” There’s the idea that you give away pieces of yourself to people that you have sex with and never get them back, as if you continue to become less of a person with each encounter. The notion that premarital sex isn’t God’s way. There’s no talk of consent, no talk of rape, no talk of loving relationships other than conventional married one-man-one-woman. It’s God’s way (married heterosexual sex) or sin. Add this thread to my faith, loosely wrapped around.
- New Testament book studies: I remember going through Acts and many of Paul’s letters in youth group. Discussions centered on the early church, and how we should strive to be more like them. Also, we discussed Paul’s writings and instructions, and why we could disregard the fact that he said women shouldn’t speak in church. This seems like a very Protestant thing to do, looking back now.
- Apologetics: Lewis’s trilemma, emotional claims about the work of God, salvation stories, my life before-and-after becoming a Christian. How do we spread the Good News?
During this time, I had one particularly influential youth pastor, who was at our church probably from when I was about 11 to when I was 15 or so. I remember him praising us for having such strong faith when we were so young. “I have only been a Christian since I was in my 20s,” he told me. “So much time wasted that I could have been doing God’s work. Imagine the opportunity you will have to further the Kingdom of God!” I beamed.
(Now, he has 4 or 5 kids that are homeschooled by his Christian wife as he does work as a pastor. And I sit on my couch on Sunday morning writing the story of how I lost faith.)
Before we leave the middle school years behind (thank goodness), I have to mention a couple of friends at school. One friend, I found out a year into our friendship, was an atheist. It wasn’t really a big deal to her; she just didn’t believe in god. I didn’t know what to do except for to pray for her. Another friend… I more actively tried to convert her. I think I saw her as a lost, suffering soul (as I had been taught to view people). She went through a Wicca phase, and at different times in her life adopted things from various religions. She was also willing to come to church and youth group events with me. Near the end of 7th grade, I noticed a distance between us.
I turned around at my desk in science class. It was after we had finished our finals so we were having some free time. “It seems like you’re mad at me, and I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“You don’t know?!”
“What did I do?” I asked her, oblivious.
“You’re trying to change my religion!” She yelled at me, and slapped her hands on the table. Other classmates turned to watch our argument, so I just turned back around in my seat, embarrassed and upset.
Trying to change her religion? Of COURSE I was trying to change her religion. I remember writing in a journal later that evening, “I am just trying to save her from HELL, like any good friend would be doing. I just want to save her soul!” And this is an interesting point: If you really do believe in hell, and that people suffer for eternity, truly nothing else compares, including all suffering in this life. If you can save someone from being hit by a car by pushing them down onto the sidewalk, you do it, even if they end up with scrapes and bruises. The problem with the belief is that there is no car, and then people just get mad at you for pushing them into the sidewalk.
But I was upset because I was losing a friend. My belief that I needed to save others was having some negative consequences in my real life.
I think I’ll end part 1 here, before moving on to high school and how things started unraveling.