I love the words Neil Carter (Godless in Dixie) uses to describe how he went from devoted Christian to atheist:
People often ask me that same question: Why did I quit believing? But to me it’s a far more interesting question to ask: Why did I start believing in the first place? I personally feel that once that question is answered in full, the other question will be seem less important.
The answer to my alternative question is that I absorbed and internalized the Christian belief system because I was taught it from my youngest years. Before I was old enough to possess the critical reasoning skills to challenge such beliefs, I was taught that everything that exists had to be made by a person, and that person had to be the Christian God and no other. I was taught from my youngest years to accept whatever the Bible says about Jesus, about judgment, and about my need for salvation from a coming punishment.
Life is too short to walk around with only one eye open, and this self-examination led me to raise my standard toward my own belief system. I began to ask harder questions about how I know the things that I know. That process is eventually what led me out of my faith.
My own journey differs from Neil’s in some key ways; he left Christianity later in life and he deconverted within a culture more heavily saturated with modern Christianity. But we both recognized the need to ask hard questions and to raise our personal standard of belief.
For me the journey out of faith took a pivotal turn after I watched my wife undergo her first miscarriage and experienced the pain that caused her. No, I didn’t leave the faith or give up on God because I was angry at him. What happened was that in that moment, in that slice of life, I became especially self-conscious of how Christianity provides a nice-feeling answer for times of grief and hardship. It suddenly seemed just too convenient that my religion (out of all religions and ideologies) had this nice neat answer to suffering, and that my religion had got it right. I asked myself “What if religion was something that we humans constructed to feel better about death and suffering?” I recognized that people of other faiths found comfort in a similar way, even though the specific content of their beliefs were directly at odds with mine. I recognized that of course a grieving parent would want to hear that they could meet their unborn child in heaven some day (being Evangelical we strongly believed that even tiny embryos were imparted with souls and would go immediately to heaven if they died, a belief which is not unusual within that group). Of course we’d want to hear that beyond the grave and beyond cancer, illness and heart attacks there is a place of eternal bliss where we are reunited with our loved ones. I was comforted by this when my mother in law passed away several years prior. Who wouldn’t want such a comforting message? Who would want to look too hard at such a gift? Well, I decided that I wanted to look hard at it. I wanted to know if the comfort which I sought in my religion was based on truth that would last, or if I was placing my hope on something insubstantial. That led me to re-examining my reasons for belief. In a very short time I realized that my reasons for belief weren’t actually very good at all. Instead of seeming like valid justifications, my reasons now all appeared weak and pale. It was unnerving to subject my beliefs to the same type of critical scrutiny that I had used to tear down other faiths. Self-examination is hard. On the whole, I think it’s been worth it. While I’ve lost the comfort of an afterlife, I feel like I’ve gained much more. I don’t know that such a journey is for everyone, but it’s the journey I took, and I’m glad I did.