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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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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.

the beginning

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…

reading the bible

Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve struggled with the dichotomy between wanting to put Christianity completely behind me and wanting to honor its role in shaping me. At first I thought the demarcation would be easy; I even thought that I could somehow retain partial membership in the cultural accoutrements of evangelicalism. So for a time, my habits didn’t alter much. I continued to listen to Christian music and read Christian websites, keeping tabs on cultural trends.

Leaving a community is a sad thing. Even while I knew that, I didn’t appreciate what it meant to actually relinquish my claim on the culture and community that was the most significant one I had ever known. But it was necessary, because while I was trying to preserve the cultural identity that Christianity had given me, I was really only preserving my bitterness.

So I swung to the other extreme. I wanted to forget everything about Christianity. I wanted to forget the many memorized bible verses that were written in my mind, the mental gymnastics of theology and biblical scholarship that I used to find fascinating. I didn’t keep any of my bibles or Christian books, I deleted the worship music from my ipod, I haven’t stepped foot inside a church—all in an effort to leave behind the bitterness these things evoked in me. That’s also why I haven’t been back to this blog much since I graduated. Now, going back and reading my entries, I am surprised by how desperate, dark, and sarcastic I was.

I’m not that desperate, dark, sarcastic person anymore. And I woke up one morning and had a desire to read to bible. I simply missed the literature of the bible.  It contains some of the most creative and evocative constructions of language I have ever read.  I no longer feel any bitterness in acknowledging that, and being able to learn from it as I do from many works of fiction.

down memory lane

My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else… I don’t see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.  –Richard Dawkins

The quotation is from a debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins in Time magazine (titled “God vs. Science”) a few years ago. I first heard the quotation from Francis Collins himself, who mentioned it in a lecture I attended around that time. He used it as part of an argument for God, but I saw it as the opposite. Dawkins’ words expressed my feelings about religion perfectly. I wanted something more than Jesus, something more than salvation, more than a God with a plan for the universe. I could imagine something more. I knew then, with those closing words of Dr. Collins’ lecture, that I wasn’t the only one. Richard Dawkins could imagine it too. That was the first time atheism entered my mind, and the universe suddenly seemed a hundred times bigger and scarier.

I’ve met both Collins and Dawkins in person, and I have to say that Dr. Collins is the pleasanter of the two. He’s warm and genial, with a twinkle in his eye and a welcoming handshake for everybody. When he talks about Jesus, when he says the name of Christ, it’s clear that he’s in love. He’s one of the handful of Christians I know who radiates their love for God, whose voice bespeaks an intimacy that makes me jealous.

I used to be in love with God in that way. But it was no longer enough for me; the very fact that I could imagine something bigger and better than Christianity had been a clue to me for some time. When I realized that I wasn’t alone, that others had imagined it before me, I decided to leap into the unknown.  I dared to dream.

hail and farewell

Drumroll, please…

I graduated from Wheaton College this month. Yes that’s right, I’m “free”. I’ve known for awhile that I was going to graduate early. That’s why I stayed at Wheaton after becoming an atheist.

You’re probably expecting me to divulge some personal details about myself now that I have my Wheaton degree. But I’m not going to give a big reveal, and I feel bad about that. I probably owe my readers at least a portion of my life story, for staying with me and enduring my annoyingly vague and anonymous blog. But I’m not actually a blogger or an internet person, so that’s not going to happen. And now that I’m out of Wheaton, I can go back to what’s actually important in my life instead of keeping a disproportionate focus on my lack of religion.

The truth is, I’m really sick of this blog. I’m sick of talking about being an atheist. Frankly, I don’t really care anymore that I’m an atheist. While I was at Wheaton it seemed like a big deal, and it probably was there. But now that I’m slightly closer to the real world, I just don’t think it’s that important whether you’re an atheist or a Christian. It’s definitely not important enough for me to keep up a blog about it.

Thanks for staying with me, and thanks for your comments and discussions. I’m going to keep this site up here for now in the hope that it might help some other Christian-college-student-turned-atheist who goes online for hope that they aren’t alone. I won’t be approving any new comments, but I will be checking the blog email address every once in awhile.

Well, that’s it.  Peace.