Have you ever heard that quote, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep, slowly, and then all at once?” That’s exactly how I fell out of love with Christianity. Slowly. And then all at once.
I married my husband in September 2014. My father married us in our backyard. It was a simple, lovely ceremony, and it was non-religious. A few weeks out, my father asked what kinds of things we wanted said. I told him that we were writing our own vows, and that I wanted him to keep it short, warm, and leave god out of it entirely. Knowing me, he was surprised at my godless request, but I explained to him that a) a lot of the biblical stuff said at weddings is so repetitive that it doesn’t feel meaningful; and b) my husband wasn’t a religious guy so I didn’t want to monopolize the ceremony solely with my beliefs.
But that wasn’t the truth, not the whole truth anyway. I did find the biblical stuff repetitive and meaningless. That was true. And not monopolizing the ceremony with my beliefs sounded like the right thing to do. But I had spent three years telling my future husband that whether he believed or not, I wanted to raise our children to know Jesus. So if I’m being honest, if I wanted god in that ceremony, I was selfish enough to expect that he be okay with it. Instead, one of my vows to my husband was that he “would always be the subject of my final prayer.” That was it. I reduced god to a one liner, and it felt exactly right for where I was in that stage of my life.
The next morning, after consummating our marriage (we were too tired the night before), my husband tells me he wants to have children, like right now. This was a variation from anything we’d previously talked about baby timeline wise. I was stunned. But instead of feeling excited, I felt a looming fear. It showed itself in a wave of sweat and nausea. My whole world shifted in that moment as a rush of childhood memories flooded my mind.
I pictured sweet, innocent 4 year old me meeting my father’s new girlfriend and her sons for the first time. And then later being told by one of those sons that there was a knife under his bed if I didn’t do what he wanted. I remembered quickly climbing into the bottom bunk in his dark room, doing whatever he wanted, and then going to church with them the next morning. I remembered the guilt I felt being in that building after every time it happened. I remembered my father’s excitement at meeting such a godly woman and how happy he was to raise those boys as his own. I remembered not wanting to be the bad little girl who broke my father, and sensing I, not my brothers, would suffer that blame.
I pictured me lying in bed most nights trying to get images of an actual fire burning hell out of my little girl brain. And then praying prayers I didn’t understand to a god I couldn’t grasp, explaining to him why I didn’t deserve to be burned alive for eternity. Begging him to just let me go be with my mom in heaven when it was time. Even as I type this now, at 33, I tear up recalling the very tangible fear I felt most nights. A fear more tangible to me than the god I was praying to.
I pictured the little girl who was hyper sexualized much too early because of things that happened when her parents turned a blind eye. I pictured a girl who felt deep shame for learning to enjoy the things that were happening to her behind closed doors. I recalled the teenager having sex too early with boys she shouldn’t have because she was so accustomed to saying yes, and too scared to say no.
I recalled growing into an insecure pseudo-adult. I pictured my ex-boyfriend drunkenly spitting in my face and shoving me to the ground. I pictured him holding a loaded gun to his head, again and again, and again, telling me to watch him kill himself because it was my fault. I pictured me waking up every morning after it happened, putting on a pretty dress and toting him around my friends and family smiling like my insides weren’t shredded from tolerating it. I pictured my mom encouraging me to get back together with this man every time I had the courage to leave him. I pictured me blaming myself for my mom’s misguided help because I was too embarrassed to share my relationship reality with her.
Then I pictured the god I’d been praying to for 29 years, even before I believed in him – the god I loved and worshiped for at least half of my life. I pictured him peacefully watching me through my anguish, through my abuses. Through my need for his love and protection. Watching. That was surely all he was doing. Was that the god I was going to introduce to my children? Was that the god I was going to encourage them to love and seek love from?
As I reflect back on those moments, what’s so interesting is that if you had asked me just moments before my husband told me he wanted to start a family, I would have described my overwhelmingly happy childhood to you, and believed what I was telling you was true. But the second he suggested a family of our own, the façade of my youth I’d been presenting to the world washed away and I could see clearly for the first time in a long time. Perhaps for the first time ever.
It wasn’t that my childhood was so traumatic. Most of it was fairly normal, mundane even. And much of it, remarkably happy. But, I had certainly diminished the ugly snapshots enough that I pretended they never happened. Enough that I failed to connect a few dots that needed connecting. The mere mention of babies in my immediate future connected those dots.
I immediately told my husband I wasn’t ready to have kids. And I wasn’t. In seconds, I’d privately decided I couldn’t have kids until I knew what I wanted to teach them about the god I thought I believed in. I confess I was partly embarrassed to tell my husband I was having doubts about the god I had been trying to sell him for the last three years. But more than embarrassed, I was scared of his influence. I needed this decision to be wholly mine. So I kept it to myself, and got to work.
I soaked in every possible resource about every point of view I could find. I listened to debates between atheists and preachers of all kinds. I googled religions I’d barely heard of, or, hadn’t previously cared to acknowledge. I read funny, but pointed memes and comics. I went down many a YouTube rabbit hole, and listened hungrily to atheist centric podcasts. I read pieces and parts of books of all sorts – science, religion, and atheism. I actually read the bible – well more of it than I ever had before. More than just the versus we talked about in my bible studies and Sunday sermons. I immersed myself in blogs. Reading other people’s journey through religion, or their life without, was often gut wrenching, uplifting, and relatable to me all at once. I lost hours of sleep every single night for those months seeking answers to questions I’d stopped asking a long time ago.
For four sleepless months, I uncovered a wealth of religious knowledge, got an internet education in common sense, and felt welcomed into a community of kind, moral, and intelligent atheists – a community that until then, I didn’t know existed. Acknowledgement of my own non-belief would soon follow. And while there are countless things that helped to tip the scales in favor of my own divorce of religion, there were a few that expedited the process.
The first I didn’t see coming. Although it fell during my fact-finding four months, I was just lying in bed with my husband one Friday night watching Bill Maher. True to form, Bill was bashing religion in his uniquely underhanded but simultaneously dignified way. He said, “If there’s one turd in the punch bowl, you stop drinking the punch.” Now, I can’t fully articulate to you how much it pains me that these of all words affected me so profoundly because truly, I hate the word turd to my core. I hate even more that I’ve now typed it twice. But it woke me up in a way I can’t recall a single other thing ever had before. Perhaps because the concept was so fundamentally simple. You couldn’t argue the benefits of drinking turd punch. More importantly, no one in his or her right mind would. Except me. I had spent the last few years picking apart the bible until there was virtually nothing left. Yet, I was still drinking the punch. The churches I was abandoning left and right weren’t wrong. The other Christian’s I knew weren’t too uptight or conservative. They were just preaching the bible. My belief system was based on a book that was full of shitty punch. Even before the end of that episode, I knew I didn’t want to drink it anymore.
The second quote I stumbled on to shortly thereafter was, “if there is a God, he’ll have to beg for my forgiveness.” This is said to have been carved into a wall of a concentration camp. Many times over the years, I’d ask myself why god allowed bad things to happen. And then I’d quickly brush the question aside after reminding myself it’s all part of his grand plan. But reading that quote when I did, allowed me to give it the thought it deserved. I permitted myself a moment to question why God would allow an atrocity of that magnitude. For once, I permitted myself to not answer on god’s behalf. And when he never spoke up on his own, the silence spoke volumes.
The final thing that pushed the scales in the direction of reason was something Tracie Harris said on The Atheist Experience Podcast. Her words haunted me. “You either have a god who sends child rapists to rape children, or, you have a god who simply watches it and says, ‘when you’re done, I’m going to punish you.’ If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your god.” This moved me deeply. First, it solidified in my mind that if god was real, he preferred to watch suffering rather than intervene.
But second, and perhaps more compelling to me was hearing her words, “If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your god.” I’d never witnessed someone compare themselves to god other than to elevate him, while diminishing their own worthiness of his love. And here was spitfire Tracie elevating herself, while completely diminishing god’s worthiness of her love. And she was right to do so; there was no question. She would stop any harm to a child within her power. So would I. So would any decent human being. And surely, so would any decent and loving god. So if god wasn’t decent, or loving, why was I worshipping him? That was the moment I realized that even if god was real, perhaps I didn’t care. If I was going to worship a god, they needed to do something worthy of my praise.
There were many more ancillary bits and pieces that served the case for sanity. Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot helped me to better grasp just how small and insignificant we all are – and to recognize the unique beauty of our limited time on this planet. It also made me question whether the gods’ we worship are a symptom of our geography, or based on the veracity of their divine tales? Which was more likely? That different cultures and geographies each have different made up religious stories, none of which are true, including my own; or, that my religion is the one great truth? The answer was glaringly obvious to me.
Reading Sam Harris’, “An Atheist Manifesto,” was like looking into a mirror as he described how moderate Christians see themselves as the “true Christian’s,” while distancing themselves from fundamentalists. It showed me what a flawed view I’d maintained all of those years. I was interpreting the bible in the most moral light – certainly not the most accurate or literal light, just so that I could continue to swallow my Jesus pill. I finally realized that I, and the pastor’s I enjoyed and admired, had stripped Christianity of its biblical morals, and replaced them with those of modernity. We replaced them with superior morals because we now had the benefit of 2000 years of experience, wisdom, and growth as a civilization on our side. It was the first time I was able to recognize that the bible was a perfect reflection of the knowledge and lack thereof that its authors possessed at that time. I no longer needed to explain away the many brutal or nonsensical passages with a positive spin or deeper meaning. There was no deeper meaning. Accepting that was liberating.
Finally, four months later, I acknowledged my non-belief out loud for the first time. As my husband lay asleep beside me, I quietly whispered, “Oh my god, I can’t do this anymore. You’re not real, I can’t believe in you anymore.” The words fell out of my mouth before I even realized it – as if I couldn’t keep them in for one more second without bursting at the seams. I said it partly apologetically to the god I just admitted wasn’t real, and partly triumphantly as the fog had finally lifted. I felt physically lighter. Hot tears soaked my pillow as I kept repeating the same words over and over and over again. “I can’t do this anymore, I just can’t believe in you.” My use of the word “can’t” has stuck with me since that night – it was as if my brain had finally reached its capacity for bullshit and it literally couldn’t retain another falsehood for one more second of my precious existence.
I lay in bed awake for hours that night sorting through my emotions – which were heavy and conflicting. I certainly felt relief. I knew that immediately. For the first time ever, I felt I was standing on solid ground, and there was a palpable security in that. But there was also an overwhelming fear that accompanied my relief. What was I still scared of?
Two things. First, if god wasn’t real, no one was watching over me, or, my loved ones. I’d spent nearly every night of my life asking god to keep my family and I safe from harm, and believing he was doing just that. The recognition that no one was listening, much less protecting me was horrifying. But scarier still, now, I had to move forward with that same realization. No higher power would ever be looking out for me. Anything could happen at any moment. Second, I wouldn’t get the eternal life I’d been arrogantly banking on for the latter half of my life. When death finally came for me, or, worse, the people I loved, that was the end. Just eternal nothingness. No hope of meeting again – no hope of a better place. Facing the fragility of life and the finality of death felt almost crippling that first night.
But then I had a thought. I’d spent the better part of my childhood nearly crippled with a similar fear because I yearned so badly for that eternal life everyone talked about, yet, god remained elusive to me. Of course he remained elusive. He was fiction. I should have never been burdened with seeking the approval of a fictional character. I should have never been burdened with the threat of a fictional torture chamber. As a child, I was taught to seek his love, and I was taught that hell was real. Children are only burdened with such things when those older or supposedly wiser teach them such things. In a way, this was good news. My fear was taught to me; it was a learned behavior, which meant it could be unlearned. It also meant that my own children never had to suffer this burden. I had control over whether or not I would victimize my children in the same way. I promised myself in those early morning hours, I would never teach my children the ridiculous, abusive fucking nonsense I was brought up to believe.
A little sunlight the next morning brightened my spirits. It was time to put on my big girl panties and move forward. I couldn’t linger in the in between. Unlearning my lifetime of mental abuses religion inflicted on me wouldn’t be easy and I knew that. But clinging to a god I didn’t believe in because it felt good to make sense of death was no longer an option for me either. It took months of additional reading, coaching, personal pep talks, praying (yes, that’s right, I kept right on praying even though I knew nothing more substantial than the sky heard me), crying, small victories, and many highs and lows, but eventually, I found a new normal.
For the first time, I learned to get comfortable with the unknown. I realized that this universe owes me nothing. And that there is real beauty in finality. That doesn’t mean the idea of death isn’t still scary or heartbreaking at times. It just means that I learned to appreciate the short life I was given more than fearfully anticipate my inevitable death. I found peace in my brief reality was greater than the hope of an eternal fiction. I realized I only get to do this life once. My sudden motivation to get it right while I had the chance slowly began to trump my desire for forever.
I started to focus on the things I could believe in, rather than the one thing I no longer could. I believed in love, goodness, kindness, humanity, compassion, and decency. But I believed in all of those things for goodness sake – not because a cruel creator is waiting to punish me if I fail on any of those counts. I believe in science. I believe in science even when it doesn’t yet have all of the answers. I believe that when I die, I will cease to exist apart from the memories of those who knew me. I believe in exposing my children to truth, and facts, and views different than my own. I believe in letting them explore this world, ask questions and seek reality based answers so that they are taking in facts rather than fear. I believe in using your voice, and sharing your point of view. I believe in people, and their resilience. I believe in me, and my resilience. And I believe it’s never too late to start again.
As I honestly reflect back on my journey, I realize that I instinctively knew where it was going to lead even the very first night I began. I knew it in my guts. He wasn’t real. I just wasn’t ready to admit it. I knew I didn’t want god in my wedding ceremony because my marriage mattered to me, it was real. I knew the day was approaching where I would regret allowing the presence of a fake god to be a part of it. I knew I couldn’t bring a child into this world until I knew how to explain death and finality because I knew heaven, hell, and an evil arbiter weren’t going to be a part of that conversation. Not surprisingly, in my search for the truth, not one piece of evidence surfaced that bumped the scales even slightly in favor of religion. It was the easiest hard decision I ever had to make. And, it only took 4 months. Well, 14 years and 4 months. But who’s counting?