The realization that I was an atheist came in an instant: “That’s it—that’s what I am.” The process leading up to that point, however, took many years. It was true, as in most testimonials given by teenagers to a crowd of family and church, seeking baptism, that I was “born and raised in a Christian home, and accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour at the tender age of five.” What matters here is that my mother continued to foster my natural curiosity throughout my life, without which I cannot begin to predict the different situation in which I might have found myself. She and I had lengthy discussions of religion and science, and fostered in me a love for reading. That thirst for knowledge and tenacity in arguing gave me tools known to be dangerous to faith.
As I grew up, my interests in theology and science led me to Christian apologism in general and the creationism-evolution debate in particular. Even before attending bible college, I had read C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, and Phillip E. Johnson, among others. As I continued through bible college, I consumed Christian apologist and creationist/ID books. Somehow, in the back of my mind, I knew that I had to read atheist and evolutionary books to give their arguments fair play, but I never got around to it. I downloaded the text of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species…” but never got past the first few pages. I was working with all my might to build my faith on a foundation of sand.
The college I attended also deserves credit for eroding some of my faith’s foundation, even as my professors no doubt intended the opposite. In their attempt to bolster my faith, I was taught about church history, biblical interpretation and criticism, world religions, history and theology of missions, and perhaps the most ironic course of all to be taught in a bible college: Critical Thinking. I certainly felt that my faith was far stronger after those four years, but in retrospect, my departure was all the more certain because of the knowledge I had gained. By graduation, I had moved into the liberal side of Christianity, taking even the arguments of intelligent design with a grain of salt.
I threw myself into a new career, and it wasn’t long before a thoughtful and close friend became my wife. We began a wonderful life together, and one of the chief reasons I married her became the chief reason why our life together was so worth living: we could and did talk about everything together. Friends, work, abuse, religion–anything was game. As time went on, we gradually drifted away from church, feeling more and more that we did not belong. I can still remember the last time I attended the church of my childhood. I stood there smiling vacantly as others sang along with insipid choruses. Despite my love of music and singing, I could not bring myself to join along. By that point, prayer had also long ago disappeared from our collective radar.
I continued to enjoy my career and marriage, but part of me fell into depression. I cannot yet adequately explain why I felt that way. Perhaps it was as a result of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps I already knew what the outcome might be, and could not consider the implications. The depression worsened after reading Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience. I could not argue with such brilliant argumentation; I could only disagree with his conclusions. Near the end, I became greatly disturbed; angry even. This I also had difficulty explaining, but something at least close to the truth came out when, lying in bed with my wife, I blurted out “I’m just angry at God for giving us so little evidence to believe in him. If ‘You’ exist, give me something!” I could not feel God’s presence as I once imagined I could. It wasn’t just a lack of feeling in the emotional sense: I could no longer honestly reason that there was a benevolent spirit ‘out there’ looking down on me. I admitted to myself that I was living as if god did not exist.
I finally began to come out of intellectual hiding during the spring of 2010. I began to search the internet—for what, I cannot remember. I discovered a few atheist sites, notably Ebon Musing, which put words to my frustration and answered so many of the questions burning inside me. That was when my “aha!” moment came, and I felt free and horrified at the same moment. My world made so much more sense than ever before, but I had become the enemy. I had been taught for so long that atheists were immoral and deliberate sinners, that despite knowing these misconceptions were false, I felt a great deal of emotional revulsion. What surprised me was that despite the strong emotional response I had, it didn’t take long to abate.
A good friend of mine, whose sense of humour and intellectual rigour I greatly admired, had recently come out as an atheist, so I had the example of someone close to me with whom to talk, and to help dispel the Christian myths about atheism. I finally sought out the polemics and works from the “other side.” I read the thoughtful and organized arguments of atheists and agnostics, the wondrous and intuitive evolution of experts like Dawkins and Coyne. In fact, the overriding emotion I began to feel was anger; betrayal at the hands of Christian apologists and creationist/ID proponents. Not only had the stalwarts of Christian apologism distorted and misrepresented the arguments of their critics (as well as making personal attacks), but they had spread absolute falsehoods about the findings of science in order to discredit evolution and build up their religious alternative. The arguments I had formerly stood behind and upon were saturated with falsehoods, straw arguments, and logical fallacies.
As an inquisitive and reasonably intelligent Christian, there had been many important questions about life, Christianity, and the Bible which were left either unanswered or unsatisfied. Some of these issues were ones I had pat answers for, ready to defend if the chance ever came. The feeling was amazing to find reasonable and defensible answers to these burning questions, to make so much sense of life itself, and to cast the light of unhindered inquiry upon the rotted mess of Christianity and the Bible. My moral compass was perfectly reasonable humanism, not merely borrowed from religion and dressed up as divine fiat. I had freedom to improve my morality as evidence and reason—motivated by love and compassion—could correct my biases. My beliefs and opinions could also be guided by evidence and reason, no longer bound by social acceptance. My motivation for living became life itself, which became dearer and more valuable without the false hope of an afterlife. I had gained a new lease on life.