On the Loss of Faith – Atheist Analysis Presents “The Personal Journey Series”
I’m occasionally asked to explain why I lost my faith. I always try to answer that question as honestly and fully as possible. I usually think it advisable to begin by describing what that faith was, that I lost.
My faith was always of the “Lord, I believe: help thou my unbelief” variety. It was a cry of despair to a God who – according to the Bible – would not hesitate to cast into a fiery hell those who displeased him. That God, in my young imagination and understanding, resembled my father: a hard, cold, humorless man who was perpetually angry with the world and with his family – a man who became a father far too young (he was 18) and never forgave the family of his own making for cheating him out of what remained of his adolescence. The mental image I had of God when I was a child was very much parallel to that father, who beat me and my mother regularly (nowadays he would probably be arrested and locked up: then and there, it was just considered part of the milieu).
My father occasionally drew blood with his leather belt. He shot hunting dogs that disappointed him. He settled disputes with his fists. He despised everyone who was different from him in any way: niggers, wops, dagos, spicks, gooks, japs, queers, artists, liberals, intellectuals… some of those were his words; others were words I later learned. He was also a member in good standing of the Missionary Baptist Church in which I was raised, even though he rarely darkened its doors. So were his parents: his alcoholic father who was Chancery Judge of Hot Spring County and clerk of the Saline Baptist Association, his brutal mother who thrashed me at provocations so slight that I never understood what I’d done to provoke her (as I later learned, this had also been true of her relationship to my father).
My mother was also a member of that church, as were her parents: my Granny Davidson who taught a women’s Sunday School class for forty years, and my Granddad Davidson whom I loved so much that I named my son for him. Granddad Davidson was a sign painter by profession and a hunter/fisherman by passion. He was the one relative I loved spending time with: a gentle, good-humored man who not only tolerated my company but seemed to relish it. He took me hunting and fishing with him although I was good at neither; he let me help him in his sign shop – although I have my doubts as to how much help I actually was. He rolled his own cigarettes and cussed like a peg-legged sailor’s parrot. He never read anything but the sports page. His only use for higher education was the Arkansas Razorbacks. (He had no formal education beyond 6th grade.) He had a bumper sticker on the tailgate of his pickup truck that read “God, Guts and Guns Made America Great – Let’s Keep All Three.” He seemed rather out of place in church, to which Granny dragged him weekly. His suit didn’t fit him and neither did his summoned sanctimony: he seemed more at home in his paint-spattered overalls and earthy humor. I loved his stories and his laugh. I think he had his doubts about the church, but he also wanted to keep peace in the family so he mostly kept those doubts to himself, suited up once a week, dragged his ass to church and endured Morris Cloud’s interminable sermons.
My mother – who, as I later came to understand, had despised her father (a mystery I have yet to unravel) – was the model of sainthood that I came to emulate. She was as longsuffering (in every sense of the word) as anyone who ever lived, and she believed every word of her well-thumbed, heavily-marked Bible without the slightest hesitation. Later in life, when I attempted to talk to her about that, I discovered that it was a conversation we simply could not have: her mind was closed and sealed tight as a gnat’s asshole where any question of the veracity of the Holy Scriptures was concerned. The sad truth that I eventually came to realize is that the sainthood I had so admired early in life was in fact an extreme case of denial. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was “saved” when I was 12 years old. It was not unexpected: I had been raised to understand that eventually I would reach the age of accountability and would then need to turn my life over to Christ, whose shed blood would redeem me. The actual event happened at home, during a thunderstorm. Lightning was flashing horrifically, deafening thunder was shaking the house, wind was driving rain and hailstones horizontally against my bedroom window and I was shitting my pants with fear. I had a powerful intuition that I was probably going to die, and – not yet “saved” – would end up in hell where I would burn for all eternity. It was then that I cried out desperately to God, not only for the sparing of my earthly life but for the salvation of my soul as well: begged God for the forgiveness and redemption that Jesus had purchased for me. This was a real and powerful experience. As I write this, the memory is so vivid that it almost brings tears to my eyes. In that moment, I had not the slightest doubt that God was present in that storm, and that he had the power to calm it just as Jesus had stilled the wind and waves on the Lake of Galilee.
The following Sunday, I made my “public confession of faith” in church, and arrangements were made for me to be baptized the following week. I never once questioned the veracity of the paradigm I’d embraced: my salvific moment was simply the logical outcome of everything I’d been taught since I was an infant. I did, however, occasionally question the depth and sincerity of my faith. Had I believed strongly enough? Should I have prayed even harder? Had I accepted salvation prematurely – before it had actually been granted? Had God wanted me to beg and cry for another five minutes to seal the deal?
These doubts about my own faith plagued me, and I talked to my pastor – a smug, unctuous, sanctimonious Man O’God named Carl Johns – about them. What Brother Johns told me was that it’s not a question of whether our faith is strong or deep enough: the important thing is that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient no matter our insufficiencies: “Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief.” I gladly accepted this explanation, and it became my gospel. That was the gospel that sustained me through high school – an experience otherwise so miserable that no enticement imaginable (including a second chance beyond this life to get everything “right”) could induce me to repeat it. High school was for me, in fact, a total waste of time: everything I was being taught there was either irrelevant to the gospel I believed, or in direct contradiction to it – so I ignored it all and graduated an ignoramus.
It so happens that the only thing I was good at in high school was music, to which I had come rather late in life. Let me explain: most of the kids in the public school system of my hometown had the option of joining the band when they reached the sixth grade (that’s actually a little late for fine-motor development, but that’s another story). I was not given that opportunity: my family was quite impoverished. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I was so lacking in friends and solace of any kind that I begged my parents to allow me to join the band – an organization that included the only students whom I thought might come to be my friends. During the second half of that year, they relented (on the condition that I earn the annual $10 fee and pay it myself) and I accidentally learned to play the oboe (that’s another story). By the time I graduated from high school, I knew that I wanted to be a band director. I had a scholarship offer from Arkansas State University so I went there: it was as far away from my hometown as I could get and still pay in-state tuition. I worked part-time at the Happy Burger (later, I signed on with a carpenter as a helper and actually got pretty good at it) and proceeded to fail miserably as an undergraduate.
There were several reasons for that failure. The biggest by far was the corroding of my faith, which began that year. Among the precipitating events was the “Physical Science” class I took and actually found interesting. I heard many things from the teacher of that class – a man prosaically named “Bill Smith” – which were in direct contradiction to the Holy Scriptures which by that time I had pretty much memorized. The things I heard seemed supported by evidence: Mr. Smith explained the scientific method in such a way that I understood it for the first time, and could not shake the impression that it was perfectly reasonable.
Another was my exposure – for the first time, really – to other religious points of view: not just to other Christian denominations, which had been present in my hometown (and against which Carl Johns had thundered weekly, for being false churches and daughters of the Antichrist), but to entirely different religious traditions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism. I came to understand that those who embraced such points of view (and taken together, they represented a majority of the world’s human population) believed them just as ardently as I believed mine. They also saw my point of view as being just as misguided – and in some cases, hell-bound – as I saw theirs. I was also enrolled in a psychology class that shed light on the nature of belief itself, and helped me understand why it was that believers in false religions could embrace them so fervently – and made me wonder whether the same calculus might not apply to my case.
Something else also began to occur to me, especially as I attended the Missionary Baptist Church in Jonesboro and listened to the sermons of George Raley: much of what I was hearing seemed tainted by fear of other points of view and deep suspicion of those who held them. Furthermore, Brother Raley – like many other preachers in that denomination – was using his pulpit to promulgate a virulent anti-communism and endorse a war (Vietnam) that many were questioning and beginning to protest. For the first time in my life, I found my faith shaken. In this last case, by “faith” I mean not my own suspiciously weak faith (the weakness of which I had earlier discussed with Carl Johns), but the paradigm I had embraced since childhood. I did a lot of praying during the summer after my freshman year.
During that summer, I attended a week-long revival meeting at Lone Pine Missionary Baptist Church. I listened nightly to sermons by the fiery Merle Storms and “rededicated my life to Christ” again and again, in a desperate attempt to purge myself of the doubts Satan had planted in my soul during the previous academic year. No matter how desperately I prayed, I was granted no solace: the heavens seemed shuttered against me. And that is when and why I made the stupidest decision of my life: I decided that, since I had tried to serve God faithfully and my faith had been shaken despite my fervor, I must be living contrary to the will of God. My misery was clearly the result of a severed fellowship with the Almighty. If I was not doing his will, what had I missed? There was only one thing left (as I’d tried everything else), and it’s what I embraced that summer: I “accepted the call” to preach the Gospel. And for a time I felt peace.
I’m going to make a long story short at this point. I attended one more year at Arkansas State University, then left to enroll at the Missionary Baptist Seminary in Little Rock. There was more stupidity in this move than I care to recount at this point: let’s just say that it was the beginning of a meandering course the upshot of which was that I finally shoehorned a four-year bachelor’s degree into eight trips around the sun.
During that first – and only – year at MBS, I heard one of my professors say the following: “Study the Bible and it will make a believer of you; study about the Bible and it might destroy your faith.” I remember thinking in that moment, “David, pay attention! That man just told you the truth. He didn’t mean to be holding out viable options for your consideration, but he told the truth nonetheless.” I knew, in other words, that I had a choice to make at that juncture: either to turn off my brain and never again question anything I was taught, thereby winning for myself a modicum of peace and perhaps even happiness; or to commit myself to facing all questions honestly and follow my findings wherever they led, thus risking everything. I also understood in that moment that I had made my choice. As Nietzsche said, “When we stare into the Abyss, the Abyss stares back” – which is to say that once we look over the edge of the bottomless pit, we can never again wrest our gaze away. I left seminary at the end of that semester and returned to Arkansas State University.
There is much more to my story, and a great deal of it is embarrassing and painful to relate. I will not recount those details here except to brush by them in passing: a year’s service to a country church as pastor (I was ordained despite my misgivings), a failed love affair with the first woman who’d ever had anything to do with me, and then another, and then another; my excommunication from the Missionary Baptist Church for “heresy,” my embrace of Ayn Rand’s hideous “philosophy,” a vacillation between various majors in what remained of my checkered undergraduate career, bouts of drunkenness and countless thoughts of suicide, and on and on. My loss of faith was the greatest loss of my life – even more deeply wounding to me than the breakup of my marriage to the only woman I’ve ever really loved almost four years ago. I will say no more about the details of my early life: everything that happened to me from 1969 to the present day can be seen as the logical outcome of that one watershed moment that I recounted above.
I understand what it means to lose one’s faith. I’m not sure I would wish it on anyone. When I take fundamentalist Christians to task for their batshit-crazy beliefs, it’s not their faith I’m trying to talk them out of. I want them to stop believing stupid things and teaching them to their children, and I certainly want them to stop agitating to get those beliefs taught in the science courses of American public schools. If they can maintain their belief that a loving God awaits them and will receive them into his kingdom for an eternity of celestial bliss and their Granny’s company, that’s fine with me: more power to them. But the universe was not created in six days about 6,000 years ago, Adam and Eve and their wondrous pet snake never existed, Noah’s Flood never happened and a dead god-man never came back to life. Those beliefs are false, and unworthy of mature women and men living in the 21st Century. Anyone whose faith depends on beliefs like that is in for a rough ride that’s only going to get rougher.
Despite the hideous price I have paid for the loss of my faith and certain decisions I have made, I would not have it any other way. I’m with Nietzsche on this: standing now near the end of my life, I look back on it and own it all. If his horrifying idea of eternal recurrence has any chance whatsoever of reflecting something that actually happens in an infinite universe, my solace lies in the fact that I have made my journey and it is my journey, a journey of my choosing not someone else’s – not my pastor’s, not my mother’s, not my Sunday School and seminary teachers’. I would rather live with the truth that I have won for myself, no matter how grim, than to embrace someone else’s comforting lie.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of my loss of faith. It is also a pretty good accounting (read another way) of why it is that I consider childhood indoctrination in religious faith to be a species of child abuse, but I’ve already spilled my allotted ink over that issue.
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