a cautionary tale

College professors like to tell stories about past students to their current students.  For the most part, students like to hear them.  At Wheaton, in addition to the regular stupid student stories about extreme acts of procrastination, single-digit exam scores and laboratory mishaps, professors also like to tell another kind of story: the one about the students who lost their faith.  These are often accompanied by their rhetorically close relative, the one about the students who laughed in the face of the Community Covenant and smoked weed on campus.

This has irked me for so long, I don’t even know where to start.  While I was at Wheaton I only came out to 2 professors, and it took both an extremely long time and a big leap of faith for me to trust them with my story.  What a shame, because most Wheaton professors are kind, intelligent people with whom I would have really liked to discuss my deconversion.  The reason why I didn’t talk to more of them was because of the demeaning way in which many of my profs talked about past students who had fallen away from Christianity.  I’m talking about students who went to their professors with serious questions of faith, and five hours or five years later, those professors turned that serious matter into a cautionary tale or an exercise in mockery in front of a class.  Whenever possible, a story of a fallen-away student would be accompanied by a story of a stoner student, one who gave everything the finger and didn’t give a damn enough to even care about whether Christianity was true or not.  This would give the impression that serious questioning and flippant disregard were analogous, and the storytime would end with everyone glad that they were better off, and the implication that as long as you were paying attention, you would never end up like that.

To make it even worse, this happened most often in bible and theology classes.  The very people who were most knowledgeable about faith and doubt were the ones who themselves ensured that they were the last people I would ever talk to about it.  But even less-pompous professors undermined my trust in other ways.  The most common was the prayer request for a student or former student who was questioning or leaving Christianity.  These prayers were inevitably accompanied by pitying tones and entreaties that we never end up like that.  More to the point, if I revealed something to a professor in confidence, I would be mortified if it became a prayer request to the entire audience of his next lecture, even if no names or details were given.

Even before I had any inkling of doubt in my faith, I was inwardly mortified every time a professor told a serious story about a student in a flippant, cautionary, or mocking manner.  I was embarrassed for those students whose stories were being told, most certainly without their knowledge.  It happened so often that it severely undermined my trust in all Wheaton professors.  When I began having doubts of my own and finally left Christianity, I chose my confidantes carefully.  The only professors I ever talked to about my doubts and deconversion at Wheaton were those who I had known the longest, who had never shown less than the highest respect for students, and never used them as cautionary tales.  The way professors talk about past students is how they will talk about you to future students.

The irony is that now that I’ve gone public with blogging, I probably will become a cautionary tale.  I hope at least that when bible professors mock me, some student will inwardly cringe and be embarrassed for me.  And I hope even more that people at Wheaton who read this will see me not as an object of ridicule, but as a resource and a voice for the ridiculed.

You can comment on this at peaceful atheist, where it’s also posted.


Change your bookmarks

I’m not usually a fan of compartmentalization, so I’ve become more and more uncomfortable with the compartmentalization of my blogs: Leaving Eden as the serious, long-winded one about my Christian college experience and reasons for deconversion, and peaceful atheist as the lighter, calmer chronicle of my post-Christian exploits.  (Don’t you just hate the expression “post-Christian”?  Me, too.  I really loathe it.)

So I’m merging them into one.  Soon I’ll copy the entire Leaving Eden archive to peaceful atheist.  I’ll continue to write the more serious, discussion-generating posts about my deconversion that I’ve been writing here, but they will be posted on peaceful atheist.  At first, some things will be double-posted; eventually I’ll blog only at peaceful atheist.  I want to rectify the brisk tones I’ve used on Leaving Eden while preserving the discussion and continuing to answer questions about my atheism on peaceful atheist.  I know that Leaving Eden gets a lot more traffic than peaceful atheist, so I hope you’ll all follow me there.

You can now email me at peacefulatheist@gmail.com.  I’m going to continue to protect my internet anonymity, but if you are a Wheaton student or alum, or a frequent commenter, I will probably tell you who I am and friend you on Facebook if you email me.

Finally, thank you to everyone who has read, commented, and linked to Leaving Eden, especially over its long hiatus this year.  My journey wouldn’t be what it is without you.

Wishing everyone a peaceful new year,


the convoluted answer

This began as a response to Ryan’s comment on the post the simple answer.  After failing to answer his questions, it turned into something else and I set out to do more of what I do best: complicate the obvious and reinvent many wheels.  My explanations are roundabout, but this is the way my mind works, and this blog, after all, is a record of my thinking.

*Edit:* Make sure you read the comments, where my conversation with Ryan continues.  I think it’s pretty fascinating.

First I’ll answer the easy question.  I have read a few works by Ravi Zacharias but not the book you mentioned.  From his other works, I remember thinking that his apologetics was uninspired because he lacks the ability to understand the atheist’s lack of Christian presuppositions.  Actually, every work or message of Christian apologetics I’ve ever seen has answered completely the wrong questions, and is not on the same wavelength as any of objections to Christianity that I could conceive.  This was true for me even when I was a Christian.  This is also true of every type of apologetic found in the bible itself.

I should also note that unless otherwise stated, when I say “God” I mean the Christian God, the triune God as he is described in the bible and by orthodox Christianity.  I admit that my objections to Christianity don’t themselves completely preclude a deistic god or something resembling the Force in Star Wars, and my reasons for not believing in those types of gods are a whole other discussion entirely.  (I think I touch on it at the end.)

When I said that I could see the edge of God, I didn’t mean any of the things you suggested in your comment.  I definitely did not mean that God became real to me.  I wanted that.  I wanted God to become bigger and clearer, no matter how he manifested himself.  This is where my powers of explanation fail, because I’m a very visual person, and I think in pictures and diagrams that are hard to translate into words.  The best explanation of what I mean by the “edge” of God (and this is itself an analogy) is that I began to see God as an idea rather than a person.  Another analogy that comes to mind is my understanding of Descartes’ ontological argument for God’s existence: God is completely perfect, and existence is a part of perfection; therefore God must exist.  When I was contemplating this argument in freshman philosophy class, I had a lightbulb moment when I realized the reason why this argument didn’t work.  At the most, all that could be determined from the ontological argument is that any idea of God must include the idea of existence.  Sorry, but this explanation is the best that I can do to turn pictures into words.  Maybe if you marinate in the analogy for a good long while you’ll understand what I mean by seeing the edge of God.

The existence of God and the truth of Christianity as a whole are predicated on a set of antecedent assumptions.  The most important assumption, in my view, the one without which the entire thing would fall apart, is that the world is Fallen and in need of a Savior.  Christ didn’t come to add to the world, he came to fix something that was broken.  I stopped believing in the brokenness.  I’m not saying that the universe is perfect, or that people don’t mess up, or that the world isn’t shitty.  But the way I see it, the philosophy of Christianity digs a pit for the universe to fall in so that it can rescue us from it.  I realized that I didn’t want to base my life on the righting of a wrong.  It was already becoming harder and harder for me to believe that my sinfulness was such a big deal to God that I had to spend my life mourning over it and thanking him for rescuing me from death.  You know what that reminds me of?  It reminds me of what abusers do to their victims to keep them from seeking something better.

The gospel is predicated on a negative– sin.  Christianity first creates a system in which God is necessary, then satisfies its own dilemma.  It’s a closed system, a system with no net change.  I wanted something better, something more than the Gospel could give.  I wanted an open system.  If Christianity were the supreme Truth, it shouldn’t have to dig a hole in order to fill it.  It should be able to be good news without being bad news first.  It should be able to do more than save us from the wages of sin.

For those who have suggested that I consider postmodern, emergent, or any related version of Christianity, I already have.  During my last year of being a Christian (when I was still trying fervently to save my faith) I read every single book by Brian MacLaren, Rob Bell, Don Miller, and probably a few others I’m forgetting.  I found none of them even remotely intellectually satisfying, rather insulting to my intelligence.  In my opinion, the God described in those books was much smaller than the God of orthodoxy.
I’ve never wanted God to merely help me live a better life.  I know there are a lot of people who believe in God for that reason, who follow him for that reason.  I commend you.  But Pascal’s wager does nothing for me.  I wanted to follow a true God.  I wanted to follow a powerful, omniscient God.  I realized that he wasn’t there.  And I would rather not have anything to follow, than follow a God who may or may not be there, who may or may not perform miracles, who saves me from thinking too much.
(I know a lot of readers of this blog are postmodern Christians who follow the theology of Brian MacLaren and company.  To them, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, if I have offended anyone.  Those Christians are the ones who have been the most gracious and loving towards me all along.  You are a credit to your faith, but that doesn’t make it true or any more appealing to me.)

I’m a scientist.  I believe in objective truth.  I believe that God either exists or he doesn’t.  I wanted nothing more than for God to exist.  I wanted nothing more than for God to be immeasurably huge and powerful, capable of satisfying and astounding the most voracious intellects.  But I found that he was not.  All God could do was fix what he told me was wrong with me, and if that small savior god existed, I didn’t think him worthy of dedicating my life to.  But that small savior god probably doesn’t exist, just like all the other savior gods of myriad cultures.  Since Christians like to recommend books for me to read, I will recommend one that extremely enlightened my perspective on the uniqueness of Christianity.  “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer.  It’s anthropology, psychology, evolution, and just so fascinating that I keep re-reading it and haven’t actually gotten to the end yet.

So I will echo what Richard Dawkins said in closing his debate with Francis Collins.  All the evidence points against the veracity of Christianity– but I’m willing to keep an open mind.  My mind is open, but not to mere parochial gods who save.  My mind is open to things that are beyond what anybody can dream.


Friendly Atheist has a post about a guy who works at a Christian university and became an atheist while he was there. He still works there, and hasn’t come out as an atheist to anyone, including his wife, who also works there. His story is pretty sad.  He also now has a blog where he’s telling his story: Closeted in Academia.

A couple of comments mentioned that depression would be highly likely if he were to stay at his present job and stay in the closet. That was definitely true for me. I was depressed during my last year at Wheaton. From the time when I began to seriously doubt the veracity of Christianity, I grew more and more miserable while I was at Wheaton. Around the time I first started thinking that I might be an atheist, I realized that my misery had turned into depression and was spiraling downward very quickly. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to recover completely until after I had left Wheaton and could be honest about myself, but I had to somehow keep myself from falling so deep that I would be unable to recover.

So I went to the Wheaton College Counseling Center and began to have weekly sessions with a counselor. It was pretty miserable. The counselor kept giving me books with Christian approaches to dealing with depression. I didn’t read them. It was not very helpful, but just being able to talk to someone, even someone who patronized me and pissed me off, was enough to keep my depression from getting out of control. It didn’t get any better, but it didn’t get much worse.

My relief from depression wasn’t immediate, but it started happening in small steps as soon as I graduated. The misery of being silenced for so long made me determined not to hide my atheism once I left Wheaton. A friend said to me once that my journey of deconversion took a lot of strength, and once I had used up all my strength in keeping quiet, it would be time to take back that strength and use it to speak out.

Even a year after graduation and nearly two years after becoming an atheist, I am still recovering from the effects of having suppressed my true beliefs for such a long time. And as I recover more and more, I’m gaining more confidence in making my true self known. I’ve come out to a few more people, and now I’ve taken the (somewhat laughable) final step: I’ve come out on Facebook. Ever since I began having serious doubts, my Facebook profile has remained silent about my “Religious Views”. If I were a Christian, it would not have been silent. This small step for me marks the end of my acquiescence to fear.

prone to wander

Throughout my years of being a Christian, I worried a lot about falling away. I often voiced this fear to my close friends and mentors during my first years in college, and all of them told me that it would never happen given the strength of my faith.

“Come Thou Fount” was my favorite hymn, because of these last lines: Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love / Here’s my heart, now take and seal it / Seal it for thy courts above. I used to lie awake at night, begging God to prevent me from leaving him.  I prayed fervently, in anguish, in tears, for God to strike me down rather than allow me to turn in disbelief.

At the time I didn’t think that I would ever become an atheist. My fears had never considered a premeditated, conscious choice of disbelief; I never thought that atheism would be palatable, only that Christianity would seem unpalatable. In my head, the only method by which one might leave Christianity was seduction by secular culture, by becoming so enticed by various indulgences that faith would be forgotten.

It is quite easy to wander away from God.  But I do not believe that anybody becomes an atheist by accident.  On the contrary, it’s an absolutely excruciating process that is far better avoided, if matters of ultimate truth are not of ultimate importance to you.

Life is unpredictable.  Three years ago my greatest fear was that I would turn my back on God, but I never, ever, even considered the possibility that I would no longer believe in his existence.  I say this because I know how hard it is for a Christian to understand the reasons for deconversion.  There was a time when I would not have accepted any of the explanations I am currently giving.  I would have said that anyone who deconverts is either wicked, or never was a true Christian to begin with.  So I’m asking my friends and readers to be more understanding, accepting, and trusting than I was.  To those who have done this already, thank you.

the simple answer

The question I get asked the most is: what was the one thing that made you became an atheist? Answering this question now is as hard as it was when I originally became an atheist. I do want to explain my process, but it’s very long and comes with a large smattering of antecedents and tangential clarifications, so bear with me.

If I had to pick one reason why I’m an atheist, this quotation from The Chronicles of Narnia would be the simplest way I can think of to explain it:

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

(Prince Caspian)

I used to be like Lucy. The idea of a ‘big’ God, infinitely omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, has always been very important to me. As I grew—spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, temporally—I always found that God was bigger than I had previously realized.

I’m a visual person, so here is the illustration that I see in my head:  I see my mental conception of the universe as a box, whose boundaries are constantly expanding. Sometimes the size of the box remains static for awhile; usually, it grows at a slow to moderate pace. Sometimes certain things make my box suddenly increase exponentially in size: having an artistic epiphany, working on an agonizingly painful quantum physics project, living on my own in a big city for the first time, taking Jerry Root’s Christian Education class at Wheaton.

Always, always, my box was completely filled by God. Every time my box grew, my conception of God grew along with it, seamlessly. Often, it was God who grew first, pushing the sides of the box outwards. I never had to work to make God big enough for my box. He was always there, infinitely big.

Then, during my junior year at Wheaton, several things happened in quick succession that made my box double in size. It was fantastic, until I realized that God didn’t quite fill it. I realized that I could see the edge of God, and that scared me. So I threw myself even more deeply into my faith. Contrary to slowly sliding away from faith, I found that there was a very fine line between earnest, committed, conservative Christianity and radical atheism. It’s hard to describe what my faith looked like at this stage. I desperately wanted to stay a Christian. I desperately wanted God to fill my box. But he didn’t, and still my box was growing.

In my view there is absolutely no place for a God who is less than infinite, but I didn’t know what to do now that the only God I knew was a small God. Then, for the first time, I heard someone else voice my belief: that no God at all was preferable to a small God. I threw God out of my box and began looking out with new eyes, and my box immediately increased logarithmically in size.

My love of analogy tends to get lost in itself while complicating the obvious, so I’ll try to follow this up with an actual explanation sometime.

new blog: peaceful atheist

I like to write, and most of my writing only seems suited to blog material.  So I’m starting another blog to write about a multitude of things that don’t quite belong on this one.  I want to keep the focus of Leaving Eden fairly specific, so if you want to read whatever I feel like writing about the mysteries of everyday life, join me there.  (There is no special significance to the name “peaceful atheist” other than the fact that ‘peaceful’ and ‘atheist’ are both adjectives that describe me.)

My friend Grant is a Wheaton alum and a political scientist who is writing a book about student culture at Wheaton. I met him last year after I began this blog, upon which I found that not all Christians are complete morons.

One of the chapters in his book-in-progress is about atheism at Wheaton, and my experience as chronicled here. Reading his synthesis of my blog posts was a great gift for me, and helped me understand my own experience better. You can read a description of the book with a link to the chapter on Grant’s blog. He also has another chapter up about homosexuality at Wheaton.

something worth remembering

This week passed the anniversary of the day I was baptized.  I was baptized while I was a student at Wheaton, and it was a big, big deal to me.  I saw it as more than a symbol.  For those at Wheaton, I’ll just say that my thoughts on baptism were very heavily influenced by professors Gary Burge and Mark Husbands.  I don’t remember much of the theological terminology.

Anyway, I regarded my baptism as the best day of my life.  From that day on, whenever my faith failed, whenever I struggled or doubted, I remembered my baptism.  It was like a jewel that would always be there, never tarnishing no matter what the state of my life or my faith.  Every time I thought of it I was filled with a sense of goodness and peace that reached deep into me like a well.  It was the core of me.

Of course, I no longer feel these things.  I had to reach deep for these memories.  In fact, one of the ways that I knew I was really becoming an atheist and not just ‘falling away’ from Christianity was when I realized that my baptism was no longer sacred to me.  When I remembered it and realized that I no longer felt a sparkling core that was the essence of my identity.  When I remembered it and it seemed like any other memory, like a memory of a wedding that I attended a long, long time ago.

At first, it felt like a loss.  In addition to the loss of community and belonging and cultural identification that came with deconversion, there was also a deeply-felt loss of memory.  I no longer had such a memory to depend on, to reach back to whenever I needed confirmation, strength, assurance of who I am.

The feeling that I had when I thought of my baptism as a Christian was similar to what I see in some Christians’ eyes of their love for God.  It’s similar to what I witnessed in Francis Collins when he talked about Jesus, his voice and expression cradling something holy.  Sometimes I have wondered why I have never seen anything similar in atheists.  Why haven’t I met any non-Christians with that sense of peace and tenderness in their countenances?

But I’ve forgotten– I have seen it in atheists, but not when they were talking about atheism.  I’ve seen such pure expression of love in the eyes of a friend talking about her beloved.  The fierceness by which her entire being told of her love for the person standing next to her rivaled that of any Christian boasting their love for Jesus.  I’ve seen passion and complete certainty in someone as he called for the protection of the earth and the raising up of the next generation to do good, tangible good in the world.  The pillar of strength that I saw in him resembled the well of strength that the memory of my baptism gave me, and that was what inspired me to enter my current line of work.

Atheists have every measure of peace, love, reverence and conviction.  They just direct it towards what is really worthy of being called holy.  I don’t derive my worth as an atheist from a memory or from someone telling me it is so.  My life is a continual making of myself into something, something that I think is special and worth remembering.

pretty damn awesome

I just wanted to report, in case any remaining readers were wondering, that my post-Wheaton life is pretty damn awesome. I live on my own in a great town that I love exploring. I have a secure job at a non-profit, which makes me poor but not in danger of being destitute. My work gives me a lot of freedom to be creative, and the satisfaction of knowing that I’m doing some good in the world. Even more important, it gives me health insurance. And I have plenty of free time to devote to personal pursuits, like eating babies.