I wrote this earlier today in my blog. It turned out pretty well--this is really the first time I've been able to put into words my own journey to non-belief. It's really long...sorry...I tried to keep it concise!
Okay, so here goes...
I was raised by Christian parents and baptized in the Lutheran church as an infant. When I was still a young child, we changed to another Lutheran church that was a little more fundamental in its teachings and that my parents felt offered more to them and to my sister and I. They had an active children's ministry and the small congregation was very close, having something of a family atmosphere. When I was about 10 years old, the church got a new pastor: young, radical, and energetic, he turned our quiet family church upside-down. He preached Luther and a literal interpretation of the Bible. He made my mom angry one Mother's Day when he preached about the biblical mandate for all women to remain in the home and raise their children. He believed all non-Lutherans were deceived, yet maintained contacts with non-denominational churches.
In my childhood, church was just that thing we did every Sunday. It never occurred to me to question the existence of God; of course there was a God out there. Mom and Dad said so. My sister and I went to the children's program and sang songs and learned all the stories. At home, my dad could always be found hunched over a Bible commentary or some sort of tome of Christian teaching, taking pages and pages of copious notes.
I just sort of rolled through my early years as a "cultural Christian." At the age of 13, I went to a massive Christian music festival with my youth group and got "saved." It changed me overnight. I began reading the Bible, listening to only Christian music, and shunning many of the things I'd once loved. It really annoyed my school friends, but they put up with me.
As a teenager, I became more and more radical about what I believed. In high school, I was very outspoken about my faith and would constantly bother others about the need to believe in Jesus and accept him as their personal Savior. In my junior year, I wrote a research paper about Christian author Frank Peretti. I also believed that God wanted me to follow him and do his will more than he cared about how I did in school. I graduated, barely, with a C-average.
I joined protests against abortion with my pastor. At night, lying awake in my dark room, I was convinced I could see the shadows of evil spirits trying to corrupt me, so I read a book called The Bondage Breaker and used a prayer from that to cast all evil away. Though I was still a teenager, I acquired something of a status in my church as a model Christian and became a Sunday School teacher and leader in the youth group. I was introduced to Pentecostalism around this time and was fascinated by the fervor with which the people of that group worshipped and spoke in tongues. I wanted that for myself, but I remained in my little church where I grew up. To feed my more charismatic side, I would watch Benny Hinn on TV every evening.
At the age of 20, feeling called to ministry myself, I entered a Discipleship Training School in Jacksonville, Florida. The DTS was run by the missionary organization Youth With a Mission. I spent 3 months in intensive study of the Bible and evangelism, then traveled to India for a two-month evangelistic mission. That was the greatest experience of my life, having never been overseas. We traveled all over the country, preaching the Gospel and trying to save the lost souls of India.
After I returned home from that adventure, I couldn't help but feel frustrated at my home church. My pastor seemed more into preaching theology than the Bible. He was proud that I'd been to India, as he'd spent two years there in the 1980s as a missionary himself. Together we prayed for the country and he took me on as a sort of protegee. It didn't last long, though: one afternoon he took me downtown for a practice in evangelism. He handed me a stack of tracts and we stood outside the bus station. He yelled out verses from the Bible condemning non-Christians and I was supposed to pass out the tracts to everyone who passed us. I couldn't help but feel that this approach was wrong and I gradually distanced myself more and more from him. After an hour, he gave up and we returned to the church. I never joined him in street preaching again.
A few months after my return from India, Hurricane Katrina hit. I watched in horror as the people of the Gulf Coast lost everything and New Orleans was reduced to a nightmarish wasteland. I thought, "What kind of loving God would do this to his creation?"
In the news and on TV, I kept hearing more things that challenged my faith. Evolution, scientific advances in genetics, strange birth defects...where was God in all of this? My church attendance started dropping and I became more curious about other things like science, witchcraft (my sister was a closet Wiccan at the time), and New Age spirituality.
I started to ask myself some scary questions about what I really believed. Would such-and-such make more sense if there were no God? Does evolution really explain this phenomenon? If God really loves us, why does this happen? Do I believe in fate?
As I asked the questions, I began to see that all the things I grew up believing couldn't possibly be true. There was a logical and simple explanation for it all: there is no God, no higher power watching over us. At first, the thought terrified me and I denied it. The more I thought about, the less I could deny it, no matter how much it scared me.
I think I really became an atheist on Easter Sunday, 2006. I was sitting in my old church, with my old congregation, and we were singing a hymn when it occurred to me that I didn't believe the words I was singing. None of it was true. I stopped going to church from that time on, unless I felt the need to appease my parents. I gradually came out of the closet online and to my sister, but out of fear of what might happen with my parents I have not told them that I am an atheist. My parents now attend a non-denominational church that follows the teachings of Rick Warren, the pastor who wrote The Purpose-Driven Life. They have become more fundamental in their beliefs. My mom is reading the Bible on a daily basis, which she never did when I was a kid. My dad still reads all the Bible studies he can put his hands on and takes notes for hours at a time. It bothers them that while they go to church on Sundays, I stay at home. They constantly ask me to go with them, but I always politely decline. Someday, I'm sure, I'll have to tell them the truth: I am an atheist.