Friday, May 24, 2013

My Religious Past

Originally written on: Dec 25, 2012

This was originally a forum post, but I decided to post it here so that readers know that I used to be a genuine believer.

I grew up as a casual Christian that believed in god and Jesus but didn't truly understand the concept of salvation for sins until later in life. I rarely went to church but tried to "be good" and avoid sinning. I thought that good people went to heaven and bad people went to hell, but I thought church was boring, although I felt obliged to like going when I did.

In high school I was in a church service at a southern Baptist church, and for the first time I truly understood that I was a sinner that deserved to go to hell. I was profoundly afraid of my eternal fate, and it was that night that I also first understood the concept of salvation and accepted Jesus as my savior. I hadn't read through much of the bible and wasn't even very familiar with common stories such as Jonah and the whale and Job; but after being saved I began to live what I would then call a true Christian lifestyle. I felt like I had a personal relationship with god through Jesus and dreamed of the day that I would finally be with the creator of the universe in heaven.

At my peak I went to church three times a week, prayed meaningfully every day (not just "thank you for my food, amen"), read my bible several times a week after praying for god to guide me as I read it, talked with friends and family (not with strangers since I was very shy) about Jesus' simple plan of salvation, attended the church's camp for a few summers, and volunteered to clean the church on multiple occasions.

Even during this time I occasionally had weak doubts, which I saw as Satan trying to deceive me and lead me away. More important than that, it was always uncomfortable to me how I could be a devout Christian, die, and go to heaven, while a Muslim just like me that's passionate, genuine, and with the belief that he's correct will die, find out that he was in the wrong religion, and be sentenced to eternal torture without being given a second chance. I talked to my pastor about this, and he told me to pray to god and ask him for help. I pushed these thoughts into the back of my mind with my doubts, prayed, and continued trying to be a shining light in a world of darkness.

By time I started college, I hadn't been going to church as much, although I still read the bible and prayed. I went to the Methodist chapel at the college, although I didn't like all the formalities and the different style, so I didn't go back. I went to a meeting of Campus Crusades but felt they weren't taking it seriously, so I didn't go back to that either. Rather than seek a different church, I just didn't go to any and focused on my studies and hobbies.

For a while I still felt like I had a good relationship with god. I prayed, both in private and in the cafeteria where people might see me and think I'm weird. I read my bible including when my roommate was there, and I can tell that he did think I was weird. Eventually I took a New Testament studies class, anxious to learn more about the bible. There was a warning that the class would be a historical approach rather than a theological one, but I've always been a person that liked seeing multiple sides and learning more, so this didn't bother me.

I was surprised to find out how man-made the bible really was and for the first time approach the bible with critical thinking from an outside point of view rather than assume it's true and listen to what a pastor says without questioning it. For the first time I felt like I could confront my doubts instead of tuck them away in fear. During my time in this class, a friend of mine (who was then an atheist but is now something like a pantheist) also got me to question the bible. He showed me the video 10 Questions Every Intelligent Christian Must Answer. Even though I could answer some of the questions easily, it was the first time I was truly made aware that it's not only possible to not believe in a god, but that there are people that don't.

I felt uneasy and felt like I was betraying god just by watching it. I prayed to god, asking him to forgive me and to help me through my doubt. What I didn't do was tell anyone that I was actually questioning god's existence. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that god doesn't exist. I continued to learn how historically unreliable the bible is, how the authors had motives and never intended for their works to be included into a canon, and how some sections and even entire works got in or were left out by mistake. In the end, I no longer believed in god but didn't know what to call myself; after a short while I learned that agnostic meant someone that doesn't know whether or not god exists, so I called myself that.

At first I was in the closet. I didn't tell anyone about my "journey" because I knew that everyone would just try to convince me that god is real. I wanted to find out on my own. Of course, god never answered my prayer or made his presence known. Finally, one night while talking to my mom on the phone, she said she'd be praying for me, and I told her that I don't believe in that anymore. She was shocked but didn't get angry or very upset (but did later after I began to call myself an atheist).

As a new atheist (still calling myself an agnostic), I had huge holes in my worldview that were once filled by god. How and why am I here? What is the meaning of my existence? If there's no god to protect me, the world must be a dangerous place with people waiting to stab me behind every corner. If there's no god to guide me, how do I know what to do and how to live? What happens after I die? I had no understanding of astronomy, abiogenesis, evolution, or secular morality.

I took more classes, and I had several eureka moments during the next year or so when I learned something that explained either how things work or why I believed what I did. One of the most important things early on that I still use in debates is the confirmation bias. People seek evidence that confirms their presuppositions and ignore evidence that contradicts them. I later took astronomy, actually wanting to take calc-based physics instead but not being able to because of a schedule conflict. There I learned how planets, moons, stars, and galaxies are formed by natural processes; no god is required to fill in any gaps. I want to point out that not once during my K-12 or college education did any teacher, instructor, or professor ever express non-belief in god; the only religious influence I felt was an earth science teacher in high school once pulling out a bible and some professors having Christian jewelry and decorations in their offices.

I soon after rented The God Delusion from the library; I was already an atheist, but reading the book was like a mental orgasm. There are actually books that criticize religion! Eventually I read The Greatest Show on Earth, became aware of The Atheist Experience, started watching some debates on Youtube, and began coming to the R&P forums here.

One night my younger niece got baptized at the church where I got saved. My half-brother and I were laughing at various things, such as a hymn with the line "he touches me." After the service, the pastor's wife asked me if I still go to church, and I flat out told her that I'm an atheist. She was certainly shocked, and it was then that the rest of my family found out that I was an atheist (only my mom and grandparents knew before that); I think I had my copy of The God Delusion with me that night as well. Now that everyone knew, I began to be very open about my atheism.

My atheism has gotten stronger ever since. I watched more debates and atheist videos, read more about evolution, watched videos and TV shows about astronomy, and debated in person and online. I printed atheist brochures and tracts, debated with people standing on the sides of streets with Christian signs, and stopped at a few churches to debate. I've debated four pastors including one in Spanish that I had a two-hour debate with and have talked to others that didn't want to debate. I feel like I've only "lost" one of those debates and have a goal of one day being good enough to "beat" that pastor in a debate.

All of my friends and family that have asked know that I'm an atheist, and once someone knows, I have a tendency to debate whenever possible. I even debated for fun with a pastor at my grandma's funeral, which probably wasn't the most socially respectful thing to do, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity. I've never been in a formal or a public debate, which I hope to do one day.

Interestingly, I live in the bible belt of the US. I live in a suburban area in North Carolina where everyone I know is a Christian outside of a small atheist group that I get together with less than once a month. I remain a nonbeliever by having a strong enough foundation not only to defend my non-belief but also to challenge other people's beliefs. If I didn't have practice debating and the knowledge that I have, I would probably instead feel intimidated and maybe even pretend or try to believe because of social pressure and/or fear.

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