Personal Journey Series: My Atheist Testimony
I get a lot of messages, most of which are asking about my deconversion from christianity. People want to know why I left, what it meant to me when I was a christian, and why I don’t see any reason to return. For anyone who has asked, and anyone else who is curious, here is my testimony.
I started life as an atheist. My parents, who were both raised as catholics, never felt the need to force religion or god upon me. I have never seen my mother or father as being faithful. As an adult I have come to know my dad is an atheist and my mother is (basically) a pantheist. My mum and dad were both followers of a man called Prem Rawat (Maharaji), an Indian guru with millions of followers world-wide who preaches peace and love. Many consider him to be a new messiah (he does not claim this himself). My parents often encouraged me to embrace the messages / teachings of Maharaji throughout my childhood and teenage years, but I never connected.
What I did connect with, though, was christianity. At age 6 my mum enrolled me into two christian institutions; the nearby lutheran church Sunday school and the local Girls Brigade company (pic below). Her only motivation for doing this was free childcare. She and my dad had divorced when I was 5 and my mum was working full time – the church offered what was ultimately cheap babysitting. For me though, it would start me on a path that would consume my existence for the next 15 years.
(Me at age 7 in my Girls Brigade uniform!)
At Sunday school I learned about the existence of god, Jesus, and the bible. The most important thing I learned about, though, was heaven and hell. From the very first time time I heard of heaven I desired it, and likewise with hell, I feared it from the get go. I was taught that heaven was on high, and hell was below. From then on, whenever I saw the sun streaming through the clouds, I knew it was god, and I knew I was looking at heaven.
My view of hell was less clarified by my teachers so my small mind decided for itself what hell was, or more to the point, what satan was, and it was everything that I was afraid of. Satan was the dark, storms, the monster under the bed. Shit, in 1993 when Cypress Hill released the track ‘Insane In The Brain,’ I was absolutely convinced it was the devil coming through my radio. The song scared the crap out of me, because I was sure it was satan- it would cause me to freeze in fear, praying frantically to god to protect me.
I used to pray nightly; I would pray for god to care for me, and see me through the night. I would pray that he would show bad people their wicked ways and help them to find Jesus and to become good people.
Eventually my mum decided that we were moving towns. I had to leave behind my school, my friends, my church and my girls brigade. For the first time ever, I was alone in my faith. My new school was non-denominational christian and I remember being surprised at how much of a non-issue god was for the majority of my school mates. Only the few jewish kids seemed to share my passion for religion, albeit in a completely different way – it was having a jewish best friend that originally inspired my interest in religions outside of christianity. But I was essentially alone in my beliefs.
I would crave religious instruction and remember spending all week anticipating religion education classes which were only held on Fridays. I began to read the bible alone. Using the study guides contained within, I learned what it meant to be a christian. I learned that kindness and service to others was my duty. I also learned that every single person around me was going to hell. This realisation left me with indescribable inner turmoil- I was only 12 and I had no idea what to do.
Eventually, I decided my best course of action was to be as faithful as I could and beg god constantly to help the people I loved to find god and start praying.
I lived like this for a couple of years. I prayed constantly; I would even spend my lunch times at school alone in the chapel praying and studying the bible. One day while praying alone in the chapel, I asked god why being faithful felt so bad, and he told me it was because I was alone in my faith and that I needed other faithful people around me, a church like I’d had in the past. So the hunt for a church began.
Being just a kid, I was unable to explore any churches outside of walking distance. My parents really had no idea about the depth of my religiosity or the anxiety it had been causing me. I never felt as though it was something I should discuss with them. I always felt as though they would try use my faith to get me to listen to the teachings of Maharaji. My mother’s involvement with the guru had been increasing over the years and our home had become somewhat of a communal environment where other followers would camp for days, weeks, even months, during their global treks following their leader. Their presence caused me constant discomfort and fear, and intensified my desire to serve Jesus. I felt as though I lived in the presence of satan, that he was constantly putting these people in my surroundings to try and tear me away from god. Asking my parents to help me find a church was not an option.
I did find a church though, thanks to a new friend I made while ice skating. It was amazing, and it gave me everything that I had hoped for, everything that god had promised. I was positive god had placed this person in my life solely to lead me to this community. Hearing sermons and speaking with like minded christians completely subsided my fear of the devil and hell. I learned to think about these things in context, and I was taught about evangelism and sharing the gospel in order to help others find Jesus. I was completely embraced, I was baptised in the holy spirit, I was the church.
I was involved in many church activities. My favourite was when we would go as a group to the local shopping mall to share the gospel and convert people. There really was nothing like sharing the good news with people and have them convert to christianity right before my eyes. Much of my free time was spent studying the bible, or in conversation with god. Like most children, a fair chunk of it was also spent playing video games!
By the time I was 17 I was leading the youth bible study. It was an awesome feeling to be teaching young people about Christ and watching their eyes light up as they learned about Jesus and his amazing life, his miracles, and the amazing gift he gave us all when he died for our sins. The youth group expanded to include social events and camps, all of which I attended and also supervised a lot of the time.
When I was with my church, I was happy and content.
Away from it though, there was still turmoil. I had a secret, a problem that I had been living with for as long as I could remember. A problem which I had always called the devil. I prayed on this problem constantly- I mean CONSTANTLY! I had studied the bible constantly but nothing within could bring me solace. My conversations with god in prayer did bring me comfort, but he always made it clear that I needed to be honest with my church.
So eventually I went to see my pastor about this problem. I had spoken to him numerous times over the year with many different issues. He always helped and always had the right words.
I told him, “Pastor, I think I might be gay.”
He asked me how long I’d been feeling like that, and I told him for as long as I’d remembered. He asked me if I’d consulted the bible. I said I had, and I knew what it said about homosexuality, but knowing didn’t seem to help assuage the feelings. He asked me if I’d prayed to god about the problem, and I told him that yes I had, constantly. He asked me what god had said to me and I told him truthfully “god has told me he made me this way on purpose and he loves me as I am, but he said I must be honest with my church”- then my pastor said “If that’s what god told you, it’s your own voice you’re hearing, not his.”
That was a punch in the face. I wanted to ask him how he knew it was my own voice and not god’s. How could he tell the difference? God’s voice always sounded the same to me, and it had sounded no different when consulting him on this matter. I didn’t understand how god offering me complete love and acceptance was so…well, unacceptable by the church. This caused a massive downward spiral in my head. I was forced to re-examine every conversation I’d had with my creator, and figure out what was him talking to me and what was just me stupidly telling myself what I wanted to hear.
It was especially confusing because god himself had told me I needed to be honest with my church about my problem. I’d had no desire to do this. I actively avoided it for months, years really. But, god told me it had to be done, and I had figured if the almighty himself was only offering love and acceptance, I could expect no less from his church. If it was only my own voice I heard when it was telling me things I wanted to hear, then surely, god telling me to come clean could not possibly have come from myself….could it? But it must have. God would never encourage someone to embrace their sin.
Shortly after revealing my secret, another conversation was had with my pastor and a fellow youth leader regarding whether or not I truly believed god had told me what I was feeling was ok by him (I did). I was asked to stop leading the youth group to which I had grown extremely close. It was decided I needed to focus more on my own bible study and spend more time learning to understand god’s message. The dynamics of my church experience changed completely. They did a 180. What had been acceptance, became rejection. Words that used to inspire me now made me feel degraded and hell-bound.
I had always felt like the sermons at church had been written just for me, like they were speaking to me. I still felt that way, but rather than being uplifted and strengthened, the preacher’s words made me want to kill myself. He made me feel like my entire existence and my inability to shake this ‘gay’ thing was failing god. Who I was, failed god. It reached the point where I could no longer face my church. So I left.
The hunt for a new church began again. I would keep my secret a secret, but I would try and gauge how different churches dealt with this issue, and I decided the church that offered me the same acceptance god did was the church for me.
I church hopped for a year. Some churches I left because they were vocally against homosexuality, others I left because, although they were accepting of the gay issue, they did not seem to truly be christian- not because they accepted gays, but because they were missing the core elements that, in my mind, defined christianity, which were serving others and living the gospel. Their acceptance of homosexuality also seemed to involve interpreting the word of god in ways I had never heard, and certainly did not see any merit in.
So I left the church again, all churches. I left religion, but I did not leave god, I did not abandon Jesus. I am one of the first of millions of christians who left religion because it could not accept me for who I was, but I knew without any doubt, that Jesus did. I considered this a major flaw in the church and came to think of them as misguided and working under motives that had little to do with the ideals of Jesus Christ- a belief I still hold to this day.
My faith was once again a lonely place. It was a consuming hot mess of pleading gratitude. “God thank you for making me, but please change this one thing about me, take away the sin…”, but god’s voice was becoming harder to hear. I began to question which voice was god’s and which was my own. Then one day, there was no question any more. It was my voice. Always. The scariest part, though, was the realisation that it always had been.
This broke me. Thinking back on it now, I am sure that was when I actually lost my faith and stopped believing, but at the time I was determined not to let go of Jesus. Without Jesus, without god, there was nothing. No reason for anything, and no salvation. I could not live without them.
So I began to study the bible alone, and not just the bible- I looked at christianity in its entirety. Its history, its successes, its failures and, of course, I couldn’t help but discover some of its critics. I began to come across information that called the entire concept of my faith into question. I had always understood that some people did not believe in god, and I had assumed that they were angry with him, or that they worshipped some alternate version of god – it had never occurred to me that there were people in the world who didn’t believe in god simply because they had no reason to do so.
After that I was convinced that it was god’s plan for me to discover these people, and that the reason he had made me this way and given me this ‘gay problem’ was because he needed me outside of the church; he needed me to talk to these people with no reason to believe in god, and give them one! It gave me an amazing sense of purpose and relief. I had figured it out; it all made sense. I needed to feel that rejection from the church- god wanted me to feel the things non believers felt so that when I came to them with the gospel, I would be able to meet them where they were. This problem I had, this sin, I was born to live with it. I was born to be an example of overcoming sin daily. Of course! And so my life purpose began, I set out to do god’s work…
… It didn’t last long. It was barely a month before I realised that the assumptions I’d made about non-believers were incorrect. They didn’t hate god. They couldn’t hate him because they didn’t believe in him, and because they didn’t hate him I couldn’t convince them that hating him was wrong. Instead it became my job to convince them of the fact that god existed at all. I had no idea how to do this. I thought about how I knew god existed- the bible! So I would share the bible, but again, I was met with questions I couldn’t answer, like “Can you show me how the bible is true?” and I could only explain that it had to be true because it is the word of god. They would ask me how I know it was the word of god, and the only answer I had was because “the bible says it is.” Not one conversation I had with non-believers resulted in a conversion. Not one offer of love and salvation I made was met with any hunger or even interest – only questions. I would leave these conversations feeling silly and sheepish, but still determined. So I continued to try.
In my conversations with non-believers, I also came to realise they were not bad people. Their lives were not tainted with constant sin. They didn’t seek to cause harm to others. They simply did not believe in god. Many of them seemed fascinated that I could bank my life on something I didn’t know for sure. I would try to tell them that I did know for sure, that I had spoken to god and that they could too. They would press me “how do you know for sure,” “what other information do you have?” “what about people who know for sure that their god is real and mine is not?” – my only answer for them was “I feel like it’s true” – it wasn’t good enough for them, and it was starting to not be good enough for me either.
I endeavoured to seek out this information that caused people to be so closed off to the idea of god’s love, closed off to the point where they couldn’t even accept the possibility of his very existence. I started to learn about apologetics, evolution, reason, critical thinking – all with the intention of using non-believers’ information against them to bring them to Christ.
Atheism crept up on me. The more I learned about the world, and science, and humanity, the less connected I felt to the version of history presented in the bible. It became harder and harder to allow the bible to get away with certain things because science had proven them to be fallacies, such as creation, Noah’s ark, the spread of human beings. I didn’t want to become an atheist- I was not given a choice. It was impossible to ignore, to un-see and to unlearn the things that seeking out the information pushed by non-believers taught me. I could not keep my faith without purposefully ignoring this information, pretending as though I’d never heard it.
I did try though. I prayed more than ever. I prayed to god to please let me know for sure he is there, confirm to me that I am living his plan. Confirm he is here, and that he loves me. LORD, GIVE ME A SIGN! He never did.
Eventually I stopped trying and put it all to the back of my mind for many years, I travelled, I experienced the world, other cultures, education, new people…LIFE! One day, I realised I was probably an atheist, and I wasn’t afraid. I was 23 at this point. I mulled over this position for almost 5 years, making sure never to think about it too much, or act on it. Part of me still liked to pretend I believed in god, and I was still forcing myself to pursue relationships with men in attempt to conquer ‘the gay’ sin – so god was still alive in me in some respects I suppose.
Four years ago, at the age of 26, I came out as gay. In the same breath, my stance as an atheist was confirmed, and my freedom from religious torment was secured.
I was 26 years old. I had never been in a genuine loving relationship, because of christianity. I had no true sense of identity, because of christianity. I had wasted years of my life because of christianity. I had allowed myself to be fucked by men I had no desire for, because of christianity. I started to understand why some atheists seem angry. They’re not angry with god! They’re angry at the same thing I am angry with now, being lied to and wasting years of life pursuing the promises of that lie. Being tormented from childhood through to adulthood because of that lie. Allowing horrible things to be done to you because of that lie – and being made to be thankful for these things. That is definitely something to be angry about.
I also remembered the good nature of every atheist I’d spoken to. How they weren’t threatening and judgmental when relaying their information. How they were essentially happy and kind people. What I remembered most of all was the openness of their minds, how I am certain that if any of them were to witness god with their own eyes, they would then believe – and they were not ashamed to admit this possibility. The ability to change your mind based on new information is the core of atheism, it is an admittance of not knowing. It was a huge weight off my christian shoulders to finally let go of ‘pretending to know’. The freedom of an open and malleable mind is a feeling I can only compare with that of being in love – another feeling I have only experienced since escaping christianity.
My girlfriend and I have been together for over 2 years. Being in love has taught me two things; firstly, that the invented love of god does not compare to the real love of a human being. Secondly, that dedication to the christian faith is driven primarily by fear and once a person is able to let go of this fear through learning and information, they no longer have a reason to have faith.
To me, the statement “I am an atheist” does not mean ‘I don’t believe in god’, it really means “I am not afraid!”, and I couldn’t be happier.
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