It's Dangerous to Go Alone
This is Part 2 of my series on Doubt. You can access the whole series here.
I was an atheist for about two years before I told anyone. My parents were Baptists, and I grew up in a Christian home. I was Baptized when I was seven. Church was always part of my life, and I stuck with it. That pedigree meant I was a Deacon, Sunday School teacher, and church leader at the ripe old age of 25. No one expected me to become an atheist, and I knew it. I was afraid to admit my newfound doubts–and I was right to be afraid.
Most of the people who email me about their doubt are afraid. They're afraid of going to Hell, or worse, afraid that death is really the end. But fear of death is fear of the future, and there is a more pressing threat for any person whose beliefs are parting with their community: discovery.
Here's a few quotes.
"I can't imagine losing all my friends over this."
"This could crush my children."
"I think my wife will leave me."
"I could lose everything and hurt everyone I love."
One of the greatest weaknesses in the Christian tradition is how we deal with questions about God's existence. Most traditions, especially American traditions, have implicit or explicit resistance to any line of inquiry that supports atheism. I've seen it. The first person I admitted my atheism to was my wife, Jenny.
It didn't go well.
So before we go any further, the first thing you need to know is be careful who you talk to about doubt, and be careful how you tell them. You face a very real chance of changed or lost relationships–and that's not what you need right now. Some people in your life can't handle these questions.
But, you do need to talk to someone. Some studies link loss of faith with increased risks of depression or suicide. Let me speak on behalf of humanity by saying, "we want you here." Don't walk this road alone. Think of these people in your life who you can trust, and who aren't threatened by new or different ideas. Confide in those people. If you can't build up the nerve, send me a message to break the ice, or venture over to the Christianity subreddit at reddit.com. It's a safe place for people with doubts–after all these are Christians who coexist with the largest organized group of atheists in human history.
Let's Celebrate That
My wife spent a couple of nights trying to win me back to the faith–an endeavor that left her feeling frustrated and confused. Most people don't leave faith behind lightly. No one just wakes up and decides "God isn't real." The loss of faith is a process that takes months or years–and it's the result of new insights or questions. You haven't forgotten what you knew about God, instead you've learned something new that makes you question your old knowledge.
I was an atheist who knew more about the Bible than my Christian wife. There was no scripture reference she could offer that I didn't know, and no argument she could offer that I hadn't considered. These were the darkest days of our marriage, and at night it felt like an iron curtain ran down the center of our mattress, separating us.
Even though I swore Jenny to secrecy, she couldn't handle my secret alone. So she called in a higher authority: my mom. My mom studies the Bible deeply, and prays all the time. Mom planned an ambush, and we spent hours in a field with my telescope debating the existence of God. Mom put up a valiant fight, but ended in the same frustrating place that Jenny did.
Mom didn't give up. She said, "Michael, I am going to ask God to move in your life so powerfully that you can't deny it is Him." That sounded absurd at the time, but I'm not afraid to admit it brings tears to my eyes now, on the other side of the looking glass.
A few weeks later, my friend Stratton invited me to a conference with Rob Bell. Rob founded a mega-churh in Michigan, and wrote a series of bestselling books about Christianity. He's a controversial figure among conservative Christians and an inspiration to progressive Christians. I've told this story in detail before, so I won't do so again here. Instead, here's the condensed version.
Rob does these tiny conferences called 2Days with Rob Bell. Only 50 or 100 seats are available at each one. It's mostly pastors and other ministers who attend. He talks about how to sustain the creative output necessary to make good sermons every week, how to live a balanced life, the future of the church, and other issues relevant to people who lead congregations. It was an odd place for an atheist to be, but I was having a blast.
After all, I work in advertising. Writing, speaking, and creating excitement are all really important parts of my job and Rob Bell is great at all those things. I was leading the social media team at my company in those days, and I was always creatively exhausted. I never knew where the next idea for my clients would come from.
Rob really delivered on that. Lots of the conference was about creativity, human consciousness, and other topics relevant and interesting to people who don't believe in God. It was all very exciting until Rob started talking about atheism. When atheism came up, this group of progressive pastors started to sound like every Christian I'd ever heard. They started saying all these quips about how science takes faith, and how science doesn't have all the answers, and in general described atheism as something completely different than my experience.
It offended me. So I raised my hand and politely told the group they were wrong about a lot of things. I told them I was a Southern Baptist atheist, and asked them how a person who understood science believe in God. I was funny, but I was direct–and I fully expected to get thrown out.
Imagine my surprise when Rob Bell looked at me and said, "Thank you, by the way. On behalf of everyone, thank you."
And then he said, “You are here and there is something in you that doesn’t go away even when you are an atheist. I say let’s all celebrate that. There’s no need to define it further, our words will just screw it up. I think that God–if there is a God–doesn’t ask you for anything more than that. I really believe that God is that which we can’t stop talking about and that God is what happens when our words fail. Both of those things happen at the same time. You just told me that you don’t tell anyone about your doubts because you don’t want to hurt their faith. That’s sacred and beautiful. You’re already living a Jesus life, so let’s just celebrate that.”
For a second, let's forget all the questions, debates, and doubts. In this moment, let's just celebrate the fact that you care to know if God is real or not. Let's celebrate the fact that you are a person who cares enough about the truth to question what you've been told and what you've learned before.
That's not just Christians and other spiritual people, by the way. Lifelong unbelievers contact me too when they doubt their doubts about God. Let's celebrate that you care enough to push through your comfort and chase the truth.
We have a lot to talk about, but for now, just stop and celebrate that you are alive, blessed with the conscious awareness to wonder about God, and that you are a person who cares about truth.
Let's celebrate you.
Next, we'll play a game of What If.
Continue to part 3.