From Christian to Atheist

I used to believe in God, up until about a year ago. My mother is Catholic and my father protestant so I was raised as a Catholic. I missed my chance at confirmation because of a house move, and so I was put forward for confirmation much later than normal. At the time I had some problems with the Catholic church and I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to be a Catholic or a protestant. I was never in any doubt that I would remain a Christian though. In the end I chose to be confirmed into the Catholic church, partly on the basis that I could work to change the parts of it that I had a problem with. I was stupid to ever think that.

My parents were part of a Christian group that lived as a community all together in one set of buildings. This group prayed and ate together, and those that didn’t go out to work elsewhere would work within the group on their own farm or running a guest house and retreat centre. The Christians in this group were of many different denominations and all went to different churches on Sundays. As a result although I was a Catholic I was in contact with Christians of all denominations that were living and praying together, and had a faith that affected me every day in everything that I did.

At university I joined the Christian Union. In a very short space of time I was playing guitar for them and became a worship leader. (Someone who picks the songs, organises other musicians, and leads the congregation for the singing part of the service.) I ran into some problems with other Christians not believing that Catholics were Christians, but I defended my position well and continued to be accepted by the CU and to lead their worship.

I met a nice Christian girl who introduced me to other friends and took me to rock and goth clubs. (We later married.) I had no problem remaining a Christian while attending such things, and again was able to defend this to other Christians that thought it was not appropriate. In fact by attending those clubs while holding Christian beliefs and values, and by showing those beliefs without forcing them on anyone, I actually made a good impression for Christianity on many of my non-Christian friends. Whether or not the people I associated with and the music I listened to had a damaging effect on my faith, I don’t know. But I will admit that it reinforced in me the idea that people could be moral and caring without religion.

I really believed in God. I really believed that Jesus had died in my place as punishment for my sin. I honestly thought that the Holy Spirit came down to earth and guided me. One of the reasons was that I experienced different feelings during my prayer and worship. A worship session can take the mood and the feelings of a whole congregation and change them. A standard worship session would open with a prayer, then have a loud praise song or two, (or more) then perhaps a quieter song or two, and then a mix of prayer – maybe with background music, and quieter and more repentant songs. At the end there would be either a talk or sermon, or a couple of louder songs to wake everything up again. The whole process took me and others into “a state of worship” which I can’t describe. It was like a drug. It was an entirely different emotional state, one focussed on God but blissful and comforting.

How do I explain the other things that I previously took as evidence for God? I was what is called a Charismatic Catholic. Unlike many Catholics we prayed in tongues (Making sounds believed to be other languages to talk to God, called Glossolalia) and prophesied. (Spoke messages believed to be given to us by God.) I never heard an actual voice from God. After a time of prayer or singing I think my mind was in a state a bit like meditation and I would have thoughts that fitted a situation, so I would say them. Sometimes those thoughts matched a situation that I did not know about, and then that would be taken of confirmation that the message was from God. I now believe this to be similar to the way in which astrologers, mediums and fortune tellers extract information about someone through careful questions and then adjust their prophecy as it comes out until it makes someone respond thinking that it is a message for them. Except in the case of Christian prophecy, everyone does it to each other. I think that faith in what is happening leads to a doublethink that causes everyone there to accept each other’s prophecy while being able to fabricate one themselves and believe it to be God. Another form of this was in reading from the Bible until finding a verse or a chapter that had enough similarities to the current situation to apply. Sometimes this would take the form of opening the bible at random and picking a verse. Of course if it doesn’t apply then the reader quietly moves on to something else, so that the only random picks that we told to each other were the applicable ones. It looked like it worked.

Then there was healing. When injured or sick or just suffering from a headache we would pray for each other. It usually involved “laying on of hands” – placing hands on the person being prayed for while praying. For big problems that meant lots of people gathering round, placing hands on the person and praying. I saw people healed. Although what I actually saw was people say that they felt better. I now believe that to be a placebo effect, which is a lot stronger than you may think. I myself have prayed with people for a headache, or a stomach ache, or a sore thumb or something equally minor and seen them get up and get on with stuff, claiming to feel better.

I have always had a skeptical worldview, wanting to see evidence of things before I would believe them – except where Christianity was concerned. Over the last eleven years I got skeptical about more and more aspects of Christianity, and got more annoyed with people saying things that I thought were stupid up to the point where I began to think a lot of it was stupid. I realised that people would pick and choose which laws in the bible they wanted to apply. This isn’t entirely irrational, because Christians believe that after the coming of Jesus we entered a new covenant with God which replaced the old covenant – that previously in place between the Jews and God which required all the laws to be kept. This new covenant made the laws of the old testament of the bible obsolete. One specific example is that St Peter was told that he could eat pork which was previously forbidden. However, what happens is that some rules have been kept, like those on homosexuals, and others abandoned, like menstruating women staying away from everyone or people not going to the toilet inside the camp. (Hands up Christians who have an inside toilet!) This double standard on laws and rules is intensely annoying to me.

I remember some years ago going back to visit my parents and going to prayer meeting with them. People there were praying for several people who were long-term sick, and praying for healing. I knew that these people had been prayed for many times before. They were still ill. I didn’t like it, but I pushed the thought to one side and ignored it. There were also a few other things said which I disagreed with but I kept quiet and just decided to leave that out of my own faith. As I said, I started to get more and more skeptical about many beliefs and practices. I personally had a more stripped down core of faith which did not include things that I thought were stupid. I still had problems with the Catholic church, and I started going to an Elim church with my wife instead. This was also a lot more convenient and nicer to go to church together than to separate places. In 2009 we moved back to my parents hometown and at that point I never really went back to church because I couldn’t find one that I liked.

In 2010 I came across Boobquake. Boobquake was a joke experiment intended to make a point about religion. An imam in Iran had blamed an earthquake on women revealing too much. Jen Mcreight proposed on her blog, BlagHag, that women all over the world should wear low-cut tops on the same day to see if it made a statistical difference to the number of earthquakes. The idea quickly spread all over the world and made headlines everywhere. As a result of that story I started reading BlagHag. Jen writes mostly about skepticism, atheism, feminism, science and cool geeky stuff. From there I started to read other skeptic and atheist blogs, and realised that I was a skeptic.

In October I went a Catholic Conference – a weekend of prayer and worship. My parents were in charge of the music and I was helping, in spite of serious doubts about Christianity by now. For most of the weekend I attended the parts with music and went and sat in a different room for the talks and the prayer sessions. I was, to my surprise, actually able to engage with the music to worship properly, and reached that state of worship that I described earlier. Perhaps it was because I was making an effort in order to play the part that I had been asked to. But my absence for the other parts was noticed by other people and when questioned on it I simply answered that I was not in a spiritual state to cope with any of those parts right now. At the end of the conference there was a healing session. In that session the speaker spoke about healing and groups of people prayed with those who were sick and asked for healing. I was there at the start of the session for reasons that I can’t remember. (Perhaps I didn’t get out in time.) After just a few minutes I could not stand what was being said any more. I have been sick since late 2000. I heard (or misheard) several times through the years that those with enough faith would be healed. Christians close to me assure me that this is not what is taught in the bible or by the church but that hasn’t stopped others from saying it. My parents suffer, one from severe spinal problems and one with diabetes and complications of that, and they have not been healed, even though I know of no one with a stronger faith than them. One of my sisters has suffered from ME for even longer than I have and has still not been healed.

I walked out of that room. I discovered that I wasn’t the only one, either. Several other people had left that session and I broke down in the rest room as I talked to other people, and I admitted that I was struggling to believe. I still wanted to believe – I intended to read some important books and to re-examine my faith. Then, though, I attended the final session of that conference at the request of my mum. In that session the speaker talked about St Therese of Lisieux. He talked about how Therese was so sick that she could not get out of bed and could not eat except for communion bread. He talked about how she would wait to hear of someone who did not accept God, and then she would “suffer for them” until they accepted God. She believed that her pain was for those people. I just could not accept that a loving God would either cause this woman to suffer for other people, or accept her dedication of suffering to these people.

In November I had to have surgery and spend several weeks in bed for the second time that year. Before I had even recovered from my surgery I got flu. Twice. That kept me in bed most of the time from then until Christmas. I think it was some time around this stage that I started to become depressed. Towards the end of November I wrestled with the existence of God after an argument in some circles that skeptics had to be atheists. I concluded that I was uncertain of the existence of God, and I stated that it was causing me problems. By Christmas Eve I had become very depressed and as I was on a train to stay with family I had my netbook with me but no internet access and so I decided to write. I wrote something which contained as many grievances with Christianity as I could think of at that point and I declared that I was no longer a Christian. In my horrible depression, I posted that article on my blog late on Christmas Eve, not thinking about anyone else and certainly not what it would do to my family. I am sorry to say that I upset my mum horribly and I am sure that I upset others too. I am so sorry that I ruined their Christmas.

In losing my faith I had lost something so deeply embedded in my life that the only thing I can compare it to is the possibility of being abandoned by my wife of eleven years, or of her death. I fell apart that night. I became suicidal. That night it was about -17c outside and I intended to go outside and freeze to death. I completely intended to die, so as to avoid (I thought) being abandoned by my family because of my lack of faith and so as to avoid the loss that I felt at no longer believing in God. I honestly don’t know how I did not go through with it but I somehow survived that Christmas and spent most of it hiding in my bedroom, leaving others to assume that I was ill.

Since Christmas I have tried my hardest to avoid thinking about it all. On a few occasions when I have tried to revisit my loss of faith or talk about it I have ended up in severe depression again. I still feel the loss, of feeling a connection with God, of being able to pray, and most of all of being able to worship with music. I have thought that perhaps I should try to pray and sing to God anyway, but I have changed from agnostic to atheist. I cannot make myself pray when I no longer believe that anyone is there to hear it. I have always had a black-and-white attitude to everything, and if I believe that there is no God then I cannot become a hypocrite and pray to one anyway, no matter how much I want to. I envy those with faith now. I think they are deluded to believe in God, but that belief is such a comfort and a hope for them that perhaps it is worth being deluded. But I can’t do that.