Thursday, May 5, 2011

Doubts on the Horizon

I've already written about my formal conversion to Christianity. Now I want to talk about a few of my other memories from my life as a Christian: the times during which I was troubled and the experiences that helped lead my eventual deconversion.

Questions About Prayer
One of my earliest childhood memories—I was probably five or so—is from when I was first coming to grasp basic Christian doctrines. I asked my parents whether heaven was "further than space." They told me I should pray and ask God that question. I closed my eyes and solemnly asked, "Dear God, is heaven further than space?"

I received no answer. I was confused. I told my parents as much. This was roughly their reply: "He won't speak to you in an audible voice. You have to listen on the inside." I prayed again, and when I received no answer, I created a voice in my head that said, "Yes, Timmy, it is." I did this in the same sort of way that a child might narrate the speech of the dolls they play with. And part of me could tell it wasn't real, so I was left unsatisfied.

Faith vs. Works
Even after I was saved, there were periods during which I had serious doubts about my salvation. What really troubled me was the idea that faith ought to be accompanied by good works and good fruit—or as James 2 puts it, that "faith without works is dead." How did passages like these square with the idea that salvation comes through faith alone?

I eventually reasoned that faith was technically the sole requirement, but spiritual fruit was the indicator of that faith. But how could I know if my behavior and works were good enough? And if they weren't, did that imply I wasn't a true Christian? These questions loomed over me throughout my time as a believer, and to this day I don't think Christians have an answer that I find truly satisfactory.

Worship in the Wilderness
I went to about half a dozen wilderness retreats while attending Christian school. Those were the times each year when a lot of the kids felt closer to God and recommitted themselves to Christ (although I generally didn't see any change at them once school started again). At one particular retreat around eighth grade there was a worship session during which nearly the entire class walked to the front of the room for prayer. There was a lot of crying and laying on of hands, and people assumed that the Holy Spirit had been at work in the room. But I could only stand numbly by my seat. I was frustrated, wondering what I was supposed to be feeling, unsure of why I wasn't up there with them.

During a worship session at another retreat a few years later, I worked up the nerve to close my eyes and lift up my hands as I sang. As I did so I felt a wave of warmth pass over me. We broke up into small groups afterward, and I told them it might have been the first time I had truly experienced God. I tried to convince myself of that at the time, but I never fully believed it. Looking back, it's clear that I had just been extremely shy about closing my eyes and raising my hands. What I felt was a therapeutic surge of relief that I had begun to conquer my fear.

Questioning Christianity
Finally, there's the question that ultimately led to my deconversion. A few years ago it occurred to me that most people in the world believe in something other than Christianity, and believe in it just as strongly as Christians do. I wondered: If this is the case, why are Christians are so confident in their own beliefs? Perhaps we are justified in our beliefs, I thought, but shouldn't we examine the evidence objectively just to be sure?

It was this line of questioning that drove me to investigate my faith. I perused countless online articles and blogs. I read two books, Why I Became an Atheist and The Christian Delusion, which presented a compelling overview of the arguments against Christianity and theism. John Loftus' Outsider Test for Faith presented a more formalized version of the concept I had grasped intuitively: that to be intellectually honest, religious people should scrutinize their faith from the perspective of someone on the outside. I also investigated the creation-evolution question and rejected the young earth creationism I'd been raised with.

Even though I'd already spent years learning about the world from a theistic perspective, I also read The Case for a Creator and reviewed parts of The Case for Faith (required reading for my twelfth grade apologetics class). But in the end, my belief slowly slipped away as I found myself agreeing more and more with the nontheistic arguments. For a time I called myself agnostic, but eventually I realized that I simply had no belief in gods.

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