“You must picture me alone in that room…night after night, feeling…the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me…I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy

I became a Christian sometime in High School. Raised Catholic, I was never opposed to God growing up, save for the inconvenience and sheer boredom of it all. I eventually stopped going until a friend extended an invitation to his church. I decided to give it a try.

I was immediately drawn in. This was an Apostolic/Pentecostal church that was slowly transitioning into a non-affiliated evangelical church. The Pentecostal foundation was laid thick, so we naturally elevated scripture above all else. Being a new Christian with a large banquet of possibility boundlessly stretched before my eyes, I read, and read diligently, to the point that reading anything else began to feel wrong. I devoured the Old Testament, enjoying even the books of Numbers and Chronicles, and raced to the New Testament, which I read a few times over before returning again to the Old. I read scripture daily for years and read through the Bible several times. I had many questions in the beginning which brought me into a tighter relationship with my pastor. I was in regular attendance, hardly missing any of our 3 weekly services. My biblical knowledge flourished along with my biblical resources which expanded yearly.

I graduated High School and entered the University of St. Thomas in the fall of 2005, initially planning to major in English. But as I took more theology courses out of sheer interest and desire to learn about God, I declared my new major and plowed through the courses. I even supplemented this by minoring in Ancient Greek. Having a robust knowledge of scripture, I did well in theology. I took what I wanted and discarded those things of little value, which was expected of an evangelical attending a traditional Catholic university. My final theology teacher (with whom I took my Capstone course) commented:

In some ways this senior paper betrays almost zero influence of your having majored in theology at a Catholic university.  I have reservations about that, as I do with your apparently successful effort to secure your education in the major substantially on your own terms.  Nevertheless, I admire your industry and your serious effort to acquire the linguistic tools to read the sources in the original: mazel tov!

I relished the comment at the time, not least because I prided myself on my own knowledge of the Bible and of God. I wanted as little to do with tradition and “religion” as possible – I wanted the truth whatever the cost, whatever it meant, and anything artificial only hindered that.

I devoured God. I devoured His Word, His meaning, His essence, and everything else He had to offer.

But you know that didn’t end well for God. Wanting the truth at whatever the cost, wanting the truth whatever it was, meant – eventually – taking all pieces of evidence seriously. My church frequently encouraged us not to simply trust what was said, not even to simply trust what the pastor said, but to confirm it for ourselves. I took that very seriously. Once I was finally reintroduced to science, my motive for truth, and my theological training (studying original languages, historical research and methodology, etc.) only helped secure my current position.

In the middle of a sermon, towards the end of my long stay with Christianity, I wrote a quick email to a friend in desperation: “I feel like I’ve eaten through the apple of Christianity sometimes. Just like the Hungry Little Caterpillar.” And I really mean desperation. I had reached the end of the road. The frontier was explored. I kept waiting for something new, something fresh, something validating, something real. I went round and round that apple until I accidentally poked through the other side. It was jarring and it was terrifying and it was not something I wanted.

After a decade of study and devotion, I became a non-believer out of sheer reluctance.

If I had to describe it, I’d use “The Matrix”. That scene where Neo wakes up, naked, atrophied, scared, and confused – and then he’s flushed into a dark pool where he can barely keep his head out of water…it really felt like that. It wasn’t where I expected to be, and it wasn’t where I wanted to be. It was terrifying.

I remember it coming on for awhile. I tried desperately to avoid it. I prayed. I prayed. I brought it to God, told him, “God, it’s really starting to feel like you’re not there. If you are, I desperately need you to do something now. I need you to show me you’re real.” And I waited, openly and in honesty, waited. God never showed. That didn’t deter me. I knew what faith was. I waited longer. I tried harder. I waited on the Lord! But I no longer felt the comfort of God for all my waiting. In its place was sheer reality.

Understanding began to well. I was and had been living a lie for longer than I wanted to admit, and I couldn’t keep up with it any longer. It was time for my exit. For the next few months, I strategically started going to church less, so as to make my leaving less abrupt and painful for my church family (whom I loved very much). It was time to jump. Unsurprisingly, despite my sincerest efforts, this did not go over well with many in the church. Some were disappointed, some sad, others angry. Lord knows I felt all that too. Lord knows how hard it is to try your best to make people happy and hurt no one – and to accomplish none of that.

But I left. It was painful, but nevertheless, there was something exhilarating after taking my last bite of Christianity, after accepting the cold, hard, unrelenting truth for what it was. It was like leaving Earth and finding our Solar System, and then seeing the Milky Way, and the unconstrained Beyond. My curiosity about life, the universe, and everything rapidly unfolded in all directions. I felt like a kid again. Everything was interesting; everything was edifying. Everything felt rich and new and important.

In retrospect, the fact I knew scripture as well as I did was problematic. I knew it too well to be able to reconcile it with what we now know to be true about the world. I couldn’t, as so many believers and theologians do, simply call this part a metaphor and that part literal as a means of making amends. That isn’t to say it’s all literal, it obviously is not; but I thought it more honest to use the text itself to determine what is metaphorical rather than cry “metaphor” at the approach of every outmoded or difficult passage. The moment I am allowed that luxury, my personal biases have full reign. Simply saying, “Genesis was meant as a guideline to tell us that God created the universe and world” would be having my cake and eating it whole. Hypocritical, too, for I always hated when others twisted scripture to mean what they wanted. In the end, I could not force a reconciliation of science and the Bible by any honest and fair means. Investigations into theology and history and the development of scripture itself (something I’d recommend for all believers) were just more nails in the coffin.

All of this I admit to. But what I don’t admit to is the frequent and offensive charge that I wanted to leave the church. I wanted no such thing. I fought tooth and nail and claw against it. I never wanted nor expected to leave. Nor do I admit to the silly (and often demonstrably false) charge of being too smart for my own good. Or that there’s even such a thing as learning too much. These are what we tell ourselves to keep us thinking the same old thoughts. If you’ve found yourself saying this, I implore you to step back and assess the situation even more openly than you ever thought possible.

While a Christian, my daily motto was “seek the truth above all else,” and it’s really more than a motto. It’s a policy, and one Christianity could not survive over the long haul, at least not for me. What remains is a cold, devastating, and spectacular landscape called reality, brimming with more riches than we can hope to understand or experience. Whether a Christian or the most reluctant atheist in all the world, I just can’t content myself with anything less than that. Not even if I wanted to.

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I went to school for Theology and Ancient Greek at the University of St. Thomas. I'm a slow reader and writer, enjoy art and nature, and am enthusiastic about science. I'm especially interested in evolution, ancient history and language, and poetry.

6 Comment on “The Reluctant Atheist

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