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Archive for November, 2008

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This is the story of how I got to Wheaton and my first year there. This is all Christianity; not even an inkling of atheism yet, but every story has to start somewhere.

I did not actually spend my entire college career at Wheaton. I transferred there at the beginning of my sophomore year, after spending my freshman year at an elite secular liberal arts college that I loved.

I went to Wheaton for one reason only: because God told me to go there. I remember it quite vividly. I was sitting in my dorm room at my desk, and suddenly the idea popped into my mind: I’m going to transfer to Wheaton. Like all ideas that popped into my mind in those years, I attributed it to God. I was convinced that this was God’s will for me, but, as always, you have to give a little test just to be sure. So I told God I would apply to Wheaton, and if I was accepted, I would go. I prayed that if God didn’t want me to go to Wheaton, then I shouldn’t get in.

I got in, as I knew I would academically– but I had hoped for some fluke by which I would be rejected. As my freshman year ended, I really didn’t want to leave my beloved school. I didn’t want to go to Wheaton, and I started a series of mental gymnastics by which I tried to reason out a loophole to disobey God. Because, no matter what I felt about going to Wheaton, I never doubted that God wanted me to go there. To me, it was exactly like the commandments God gave to people in the Old Testament to leave their homes and go to a place where he would lead them.

By the end of the semester, I had done enough reasoning that I could have stayed where I was and been fairly confident that God wouldn’t smite me. For awhile there, it looked like I could go either way. I sought the counsel of my Christian friends and mentors, and all of our discussions seemed to weigh in favor of me staying.

I sent in my deposit, figuring that I could stand to lose $200 if I decided not to go to Wheaton. But I knew, all along, that I was going to go. I couldn’t stand disobeying God. So against all my better judgment, against all my desires to stay with my friends and professors in a thrilling academic environment and a part of the country that I felt connected to, I withdrew from my school and committed to going to Wheaton, sight unseen.

Luckily, when I first saw Wheaton I thought it seemed an idyllic place. At the time, going to a college on a hill with a big sign in front that declared “For Christ and His Kingdom” was a dream come true. I missed my old school, but Wheaton was so different and challenging in its own way that I didn’t feel the loss too severely. My first semester, I took Introduction to Christian Education with Jerry Root. To be honest, I now can not remember a single thing about that class, besides the fact that Jerry quoted C.S. Lewis a lot. But at the time, and for several semesters afterwards, I regarded that class and its spiritual insights as the highlight of my Wheaton life. For awhile, I was enamored with the idea of majoring in Christian Education.

There was no shortage of spiritual highlights at Wheaton. By spiritual highlights I mean both highs and lows, because struggles and anguished fights with God were as important to my spiritual development as the days of spending all my free time reading the bible or praying for hours in the chapel while fasting. The amplitude and wavelength of my spiritual highs and lows were intense enough to keep me occupied during my first year at Wheaton, making me ignore completely all academics aside from religion-oriented classes, which were the only ones in which I learned anything anyway. I grew a lot as a Christian that year, and I even had time to go through sophomore cynicism, a stage that most Wheaton students experience of being disenchanted with the church and with Christianity. It’s the spiritual version of sophomore slump. I fell deep into cynicism and then emerged from it, my faith stronger.

Wow, I wasn’t planning on telling this much of my story. Still, there’s a long way to go before hitting atheism. To be continued, maybe…

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