A Post-Theist’s Story: Ripping

For Christmas eve, I decided to post my next installment of how I lost my faith!  Enjoy and happy holiday season!

Part 1 covered childhood and middle school years.  I took ownership of my faith in middle school, and started the high school years with a secure faith.

I was part of an accelerated academic program at my high school because I was ahead in math.  This means we had homework over the summer, and our homework was to write about a hero.  Can you guess who I picked?

I stood in front of the class on the first day of high school and said, as boldly as I could, “My hero… is… Jesus.”

I had chosen the Bible as my source.

After I was done presenting, my teacher asked, “How do you know that Jesus actually existed?”

I could tell I would not like this class.

But in the back of the classroom sat a girl wearing a hijab.  I had grown up with muslim friends, and I remember being fascinated by their transition from girlhood (no head covering) to womanhood (showing up at the bus stop the next day with a head covering).  So this was not new to me, but she was new to me.  I went to the back of the class and asked her name.  When she told me, I told her I thought it was a cool name, and she happily said, “Thank you!”  She had a friendly and gracious smile.

This is the start of a friendship that changed my life.

One day we were in the library.  I don’t remember exactly what started the conversation, but she stated that we believed in the same God.

“No we don’t.”  I responded, not mean, just matter-of-fact.  “Christians believe that Jesus is God.”

“Yes!  We believe in Jesus too.  He’s an important prophet!”  She explained.  She seemed happy to find common ground between our faiths.

“But our God can’t be the same, because Jesus and God are the same thing to us,” I told her as I had been taught.

“Well, we believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.”

We dropped the subject, but her view of God was intriguing to me, as was her focus on what we had in common.

So here I started – in high school with an atheist friend who respected my faith (and admired the fact that I woke up at 6 every morning to read the Bible and pray), a muslim friend who was quickly becoming my best friend who believed that we worshipped the same God, and a friend I was trying to repair a relationship with who was interested in various religious traditions – to ask questions about my faith.

And: parents who continually misunderstood me.

Maybe this is a typical teenage experience: I felt like my parents were constantly assuming the worst of me.  If I got home 5 minutes late, it felt like they thought, clearly, I had been getting into drugs and sex.  If I wanted to stay at a friend’s house one Sunday night instead of going to church, clearly God wasn’t important to me anymore.  If I was spending too much time online, clearly I was learning about Satan and being deceived by the evil information he put on the internet.

I don’t want to go into too much about my relationship with my parents, because I do love my parents and my relationship with them has changed drastically since I was a teenager.  But I will say that a real turning-point in my faith was sparked because of one such misunderstanding.

This would be, to continue my metaphor, when I ripped my faith in half and started pulling out threads that had been so foundational to my faith.

Here’s the thing: I was devoting myself to the religion they had taught me, by praying and reading every day, but I could never please them.  Anything I did that was a move towards independence was something that couldn’t be trusted: wanting to have private conversations with my friends on the phone (obviously about boys), wanting to hang out with friends instead of going to church occasionally, wanting to take all those silly quizzes online to find out more about myself (as if discovering that my Disney-princess-alter-ego is Belle really defined me).

And another important thing: prayer wasn’t working.

I didn’t admit that to myself at the time, but looking back I see that’s what I was discovering.  My anxiety during this period was at an all-time high.  I prayed and prayed for the feeling of anxiety to go away, but it just became worse, and it was especially heightened while I was praying.  The Bible was confusing and contradictory, even though I didn’t admit this to myself either.  I assumed I wasn’t reading it correctly or I didn’t have enough faith, because I was taught that the Bible was the perfect word of God.  So I prayed for faith, which lead to deeper anxiety.  I prayed the sinner’s prayer again, because I was still afraid of Hell.  I prayed for my friends’ lost souls, but nothing changed.

Prayer wasn’t working, so I stopped praying.

Reading the Bible didn’t help, so I stopped reading.

I had a moment where I was done with the whole thing, I shut my Bible and stared at my torn up faith on the floor and tried to decide which threads to keep.

I kept “God is Real.”  At the time I couldn’t imagine the idea that he wasn’t real.  But I wasn’t too happy with him, and I didn’t think he felt really great about me.

I kept “Hell is Real” because I was still afraid, personally, of going there.

Sometimes I still believed in Jesus, but I was moving towards a universalist view (though I didn’t know the terminology at the time) that maybe God saves everyone, or saves everyone who at least believes in God, or that maybe Jesus died to save everyone past and present from Hell.

This is when I abandoned the ideas that I needed to wait until marriage for sex and that I needed to save all my friends from Hell.

And I remained undecided about creationism.  I just didn’t have enough facts, and I had read Ken Ham’s books when I was younger so I was pretty well-versed in the creationist “arguments” (read: brainwashed by misinformation).

I will add: I have always spoken up in class, and generally I know the right answers or at least the answers teachers are looking for.  And, with my academic program, I had most of my classes with the same 26 or so kids, so we knew each other pretty well.

So junior year, we took AP biology together – a class I had fought against taking because I was upset about having to discuss evolution, but would need to take in order to stay in the academic program.  So, when the teacher asked something about how long ago the dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I said, “Several… million… years ago?”  My classmates were shocked.  I had decided that, if I wanted to do well in the class, I’d have to suck it up and act as though I accepted evolution as fact, even if in my head I remained undecided.

And, unexpectedly, I LOVED biology.

Biology was easily my favorite subject that year.  I loved my teacher.  I especially loved studying genetics.  And since I had made peace with the fact that I’d at least have to pretend to accept the idea of evolution, I found I didn’t really mind learning about it.  I was even inspired to obtain a minor in biology when I got to college because I loved learning about this branch of science so much.

During the rest of high school and into college, my faith remained somewhat stagnant.  I was done with my home church, but continued to spout the correct answers in youth group to hide my faith crisis.  To get through the services, which I still had to attend through the rest of the time living with my parents, I wrote notes back and forth with one of my best friends (with whom I shared what I was going through in regards to my faith).  I lightly and briefly explored some other religious faiths like Buddhism, though I didn’t find good information on the internet at the time.  In college, I took a survey of world religions class, and learned, from my college boyfriend, about how Christianity could be different from the evangelical, fundamentalist version I grew up with.

My college boyfriend was raised more in the Presbyterian and Episcopalian side of Christianity.  These churches tend to be much more liberal.  They are open and accepting of different lifestyles (I remember attending a union ceremony for two men at an Episcopal church before the movement to legalize gay marriage really came into full swing).  They focus more on a loving God than on sin vs. salvation.  And the few times I actually attended the Episcopal church services, I loved the focus on ritual.  Being raised with evangelical Christianity, I was used to services that centered around the sermon.  Whatever the pastor had to say was the most important.  I remember him giving a sermon about why we shouldn’t drink alcohol, and how Jesus didn’t actually turn the water into wine, but grape juice, and I thought, “Well that’s a stretch.”  But in an evangelical setting, the pastor gets to choose which versus to read on which days, and chooses a topic that he feels is important to the congregation on that day.  (For example, I remember quite a few sermons about the importance of tithing and giving to the church when the church had financial need…)  In the Episcopal church, the readings of the Bible follow a yearly schedule, and the service centers around the rituals of reciting creeds, taking communion, and reciting scripted prayers as opposed to the sermon.

I loved the contrast between the church I was raised in and this new (to me) kind of worship.  I felt like maybe I could give faith a second-chance this way, and maybe this kind of church could help me redefine my faith.  I married my college boyfriend in the Episcopal church and moved back to my hometown for grad school, not knowing that my life was about to change in ways I couldn’t have imagined… which I will discuss in part 3!

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