My Voyage to Atheism

A story about family, friends, indoctrination, mentorship, pursuit of truth, humanism & atheism.

I grew up in the Churches of Christ. Here’s the story on how I grew up in Christ and then lost my faith in God. Compelling or not, it is what it is. It’s a long story, as voyages often are.

Before I Was Born

My parents were both Catholic. They were married in a mid-sized rural town in Minnesota. It was a beautiful 70’s ceremony in a Catholic church. My mom’s dress was gorgeous lace with a long train. My dad’s suit was a dapper chocolate brown with the frilly shirt front. Their bridesmaid dresses were a tasteful peach color with wide-brimmed hats to match. An ideal start to an ideal family.

Not long after they were married, my dad’s job transferred them to Oklahoma. When my oldest brother was born, he was baptized into the Catholic faith. Now, you may know that the south is home to some very religious people. By the time my middle brother was born, they had converted to the Churches of Christ; much to the dismay of my grandparents. My grandparents were Catholic and very disappointed, but they did not disown their kids. Religion was not talked about at family gatherings.

My oldest brother, being baptized.
My oldest brother, being baptized.

I am Born

My dad’s job transferred them back to Minnesota, to the same rural town they were married, in fact. It was at this time I was born, nine years and two kids after they were married. They didn’t get to stay here too long though, because three years after I was born my dad’s job again moved us to a different rural Minnesota city. It’s here where me, my siblings and my parents grew their first roots, and this is where I have my most lasting memories of my childhood. Mom and dad also found a nice Church of Christ community to raise their kids.

Beginning Life in the Church of Christ

Our church was quite nice, actually; I have very fond memories of it. Our minister was an inspiring leader with a meaningful and humble message to share with his congregation. The minister had a wonderful family who my parents became very good friends with. My parents formed important, lasting friendships with many other people from my congregation. I am still Facebook friends with some of the kids of the adult members. We had church meetings in our home on Wednesday nights, which always made me feel important because my family was serving God in this way. I always enjoyed bible lessons with the other kids my age, looking forward to the crafts and the stories.

Eventually I grew older, and I had to leave the childish crafts behind. I was invited to the teen and adult study groups. Our church played “Bible Bowl” which was a multi-city Bible trivia competition. I was enrolled in teen Bible camp, where I had my one and only religious experience.

Bible Camp

Church friends on our way to bible camp. Love them.
Church friends on our way to bible camp. Love them. (2002)

Let’s not skim over this part. I’d like to describe the Bible camp in a little bit of detail–mostly for my own posterity, because I don’t want to forget, and I want to tell my kid about those days. I’ll also tell you about the events that led me to my decision to accept Christ as my Savior. If you’d like to skip over that part, I’ll label all the sections and let you get to the “good part”.

I actually started going to Bible camp when I was 8 years old. When you first start going to camp, you’re only away from family for one week. My parents drove me up to the twin cities where we’d catch a bus that took all the kids from the local Churches of Christ up to the camp.

The camp was located deep in the wilderness of northern Minnesota, near a township called Togo. It was a beautiful site. The pine trees are so thick here that the air smells like pine sap. It was situated on the shore of a lake that we called Mirror Lake because it could be so flat and calm it’d reflect whatever shone into it perfectly, like a mirror. The camp is a sprawling campus, complete with girls dorms, boys dorms, separate shower-houses for both sexes, mess hall, lodge, crafts hall, and two recreation halls.

I was always placed in cabins with other girls my age, and since us kids were basically “revolving clientele” that means I was mostly with the same group of girls for the lifetime of my “camp career”. I won’t say too much on this except that I didn’t always get along with them. I’d suffered from being an outcast at school too, so being treated the same way at camp isn’t too surprising. I probably am kind of a weirdo. I dunno. I seem pretty normal to me now, but what kind of source am I on my own character?

We were also assigned a new counselor each year. I always liked my counselors. I think in general I got along better with adults than I did my own peers. My young person’s age is catching up to the age whose company I prefer. Finally.

A Regular Day at Camp

A general day at this camp went like this:

  • Wake up, get ready, and make a 5-minute casual walk to the lake shore for morning devotional.
  • After devotional, we’d head to the mess hall for breakfast. (This was another 5-minute walk back to near where the girls came from.)
  • There would be announcements and another prayer. Breakfast.
  • After breakfast, we had clean up duty. While our cabins were assigned by age, our clean-up crews were assigned with a mix of genders and ages, and we were assigned a leader that was a counselor other than our own. We had duties like: mess hall bathrooms, “old camp” bathrooms, beach clean-up (this was the easiest chore), and dishes for breakfast / lunch / dinner (always the most hated chore). In this manner, all of the campers helped maintain the campus every day. I 100% agree with this, by the way. There were some campers that didn’t know how to do simple things like clean a friggin toilet.
  • After camp clean-up there’d be a short period where we would go back to our cabins and grab our “school supplies”: a bible, a notebook, a folder to keep your class materials, and we’d head to our bible classes. Usually the camp would have a theme each year. I remember one year’s theme was the “Fruits of the Spirit”
  • After classes we’d have an assembly at the lodge where we’d listen to inspirational messages and sing songs. I always liked lodge time the best. Singing was (and still is) my favorite religious activity.
  • We’d break for lunch, and then we’d have some free time. We could go swimming, pursue our camp badges (similar to boy scouts or girl scouts), or hang out in the recreation hall to play ping pong, basketball, or play music. Some of the older kids brought their instruments to camp, which by the way, were never part of religious worship since we were “Church of Christ”. We didn’t believe in using instruments for our worship. Only our voices. We also had an arts and craft booth, and this was my favorite place to use my free time.
  • Then “ding ding ding!” The bell would ring for CANTEEN, and everyone would RUUUUUUUUUN to the canteen to get first place in line for all the junk food we were denied at our meals. Snickers bars, Fun Dip, Pop, M&Ms, you name it. Canteen was a bit of a status situation, because you could only buy stuff here if your parents gave your money for it. The canteen also had a little souvenir shop to buy camp t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, blankets, etc.
  • I can’t remember much after this, except dinner time. I also remember a required rest time, where we would take hour-long afternoon naps.
  • Dinner, and then evening devotional. We’d assemble at the lodge to sing songs and listen to some inspirational messages.
  • After our evening devo, we’d stay up late doing some camp-wide activity like capture the flag, or songs around the campfire (not usually of a specifically religious nature, just good old-fashioned, silly fun. Songs that come to mind: “Stirring the Purple Soup” “Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds”, “Hunter in the Woods”) This was another one of my favorite parts of camp.
  • Lights out. Do it all again!

Teen Bible Camp

Now when you got to be a teen, you’d stay at camp for TWO weeks, and that weekend in the middle was a very special thing indeed. This is where the camp directors would save the MOST fun activities. Specifically, I remember “crazy olympics” where they would pit each cabin against each other for silly events like toilet paper roll chain, stuffing the most marshmallows in their mouth and still saying “fuzzy bunny”, drinking a root beer the fastest, eating a pie the fastest, putting the most people in a canoe without it sinking, etc. Such great, great fun.

Now. We get to the part where I was saved.

Part of the special events of the weekend would be “the catacombs”. This was an event that was planned by the older campers (and counselor leadership) for the younger campers. The first time I experienced this is when I was 13, my first year of teen camp.

I’d already been attending since I was 8, you remember. At 13 years old I had a fairly good grasp on Christian doctrine too, especially coming from the Churches of Christ (we’re an extremely bible-based group). This was the first time I experienced our doctrine not only acted out, but *I* was part of the action.

It all started with the after dinner lodge singing as normal. Then! Without warning, someone burst in through the side doors and said, “It’s not safe here!!! We have to go, RIGHT NOW!” We were all freaked out. Someone turned out the lights and we all quietly hurried out of the lodge.

We were taken in this manner, quietly, from one scene to the next–The last supper (which we would all participate in as if we were Jesus’ disciples), Jesus praying in the garden, Peter denying Jesus, Jesus on the cross…

…And then we’d flash forward in time as if we were the Christians of 100 AD hiding out in catacombs (hence the name). Roman guards were alerted to our hiding place (the part of the Romans were played by the camp’s adult leadership), so we’d have to move to another hiding place.

In this new hideout we sung the most powerful songs. Our voices really did seem to reach heaven. I remember looking at the ceiling of the barn we were in and imagining our voices blowing it off–that’s how powerful we were. Nothing. Nothing on this earth could possibly break us of our belief in God!!

Then, the most devastating thing happened. The Romans found us. They FOUND us! They had a confrontation with the leader of our group, and they KILLED him in FRONT of us!! (Not literally of course, this was a play. Chill out. Sheesh.) More Roman soldiers poured into our hiding place. They herded us into their jail.

All of us were huddled in this unknown room. (Literally, all of us campers had never seen this room, it was an old storage room cleared out for this purpose.) It was a small room; so 120 (give or take) of us were all crammed in here like sardines. One by one, a soldier would haul someone into their interrogation room. I sat with the other captives in tense anticipation on what would lie on the other side. I could hear yelling.

Finally, my turn came. They hauled me into the lodge. All the furniture had been moved aside with the exception of one school desk in the middle of the room. They shoved me onto the desk chair. There was a piece of paper on the desk. It had writing on it. At the bottom of the writing was a straight line. They yelled, “Sign it! SIGN it!!!!” I frantically tried to read the thing I was signing. It was too chaotic, and I couldn’t comprehend the words in time. I yelled back in their faces, “I wont sign it unless I can read it first!!!!” In 30 seconds or less, they gave up and I was led out of the room.

….

That was the end of the show.  The place where I was brought to was another holding area that all of the other campers waited, our fates unknown. Finally, after all the remaining campers had their 30 seconds at the school desk, the camp director came out to solemnly read us the “contract” that some of us signed. I of course, hadn’t signed it. The contract basically said that “I denounce my faith in Jesus Christ… ” and you don’t need to know the rest. According to the camp leaders the people that signed it lived. The ones that didn’t sign died a martyrs death. All you need to know is, I didn’t sign it, and I felt a smug sense of superiority over my peers for not having signed it.

After this extremely emotional event and the final revelation, we all gathered at the shore of Mirror Lake. It is now nearly midnight, and the stars are in full show. Every single star was reflected perfectly in the water of the calm lake. A camp leader preached a message. Many people were called to join Christ that evening. Thirteen people were baptized in the waters of Mirror Lake, fully clothed in whatever they happened to be wearing at that moment, right beneath the stars–almost like angels in heaven, witnessing the event. Powerful, powerful stuff.

But… like my resistance to sign that piece of paper, so was my resistance to get baptized on a whim that evening. I wanted it to be done “right” you see–in front of the congregation that I’d grown up in and by the pastor that I’d learned from. So I waited.  I got baptized later that year as I wished. I felt complete.

Yet conflicted.

Living With Jesus

I don’t have too much to say about this period in my life. I didn’t really feel all that different after being saved.

I felt really guilty about the new sexuality that was blooming in me. I was boy crazy, what can I say? 🙂 Despite the fact that I really wanted to make out with boys, I think I did a pretty good job being a Christian. I didn’t swear, I respected my elders (for the most part; my parents might say differently), got good grades, went to church with my parents, stayed out of trouble, etc. Life was pretty good.

I remember that I used to do a weekly bible study at my Baptist friend’s house every week after school. Her parents were missionaries, so she was pretty “on fire” for God. I remember getting into theological debates over whether or not you needed water to be baptized. She believed that you just need to “call on the name of the lord”.

I also harassed my high school biology teacher during the evolution section of our textbooks. Yes, of course I believed in the literal word of God and a young earth! The earth was OBVIOUSLY only 6,000 years old. I was heavily influenced by the talks that Dr. Kent Hovind gave. They’re quite entertaining; I suggest them to anyone, atheist and christian alike.

Our parents must be pretty “liberal” Church of Christ members because I learned later that other members of the Churches of Christ don’t let their kids go to dances, and they don’t drink. My parents liked their occasional beer, and all of us went to prom. I didn’t really care for dancing much anyway.

When I was 17, I auditioned to be a member of the street cast at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, and was accepted. I’ll elaborate more on this in a different article–my reasons for joining, and the fun times I had there. I mention it here because it was a very eye-opening experience for me religiously. A lot people at fest are practicing pagans; I made friends with a few of them. They invited me to Samhain, which I attended. It was weird for me, but profound. These people were kind and accepting of all types.

Then I was off to college. I met a boy at fest, and we were together for five years. He was catholic, and I was ALWAYS trying to convert him. It annoyed him when I did that. He wasn’t really much of a deep thinker like I was.

The First De-Conversion Event

Other Denominations of Christianity

My voyage to atheism was a slow one. There was no one thing that just immediately de-converted me, but there were a few events that stick out in my mind. Jeremiah, (my boyfriend from fest) was a very popular guy and had lots of friends. He shared a house with one of his friends, Tim. Tim was in his mid-forties. Good looking, friendly, and a very smart guy. We hung out a lot. We’d drink beer, go to pub night on Thursday, watch bad zombie movies, go up to his family cabin on the north shore of lake superior. We three got to be kind of a posse, I was “Em-cat, my boyfriend was “J-dog” and Tim was “T-bone”. Goofy people, us.

Anyway, that all came to a screeching halt one evening. By this point Jeremiah had moved out of Tim’s house for this and that reason, but we still continued to meet every week at the pub. One Thursday night, Tim didn’t show up. We called his house phone and left a message, “Hey man, where are you? We’re all the pub! See you later!” Turns out, he was dead. No one ever told me the cause of his death. Not knowing has always bothered me.

After attending his funeral, I was very upset. He’s Protestant, and according to the rules I was taught in church, Tim went to hell. He went to hell. He was a good guy! He lived a good life! You’re telling me that just because he didn’t get baptized as an adult he’s going to burn for all eternity? He doesn’t deserve that. I remember YELLING all of this at my parents at the top of my lungs. It just wasn’t fair. This religion thing kind of sounded like a bunch of bullshit to me.

The Second De-Conversion Era

Serious Bible Study

After Tim died in early 2008, Jeremiah and I just weren’t the same. Jeremiah also had other pressures in his life at this time, and we ultimately broke up. In hindsight, it was for the best.

Less than a year later I met someone else (again, I’ll get into details of this in a different post). We dated for about a year and he proposed to me. I accepted. 🙂 Well, I was a good Christian, and marriage was a very special thing in the church. We met with a pastor a few times, my husband did our own book-guided study on marriage, and we also did general study of the bible by working through the entire thing a chapter at a time.

I just remember vaguely having this weird “taste in my mouth” when I encountered some of the dark parts of the bible, and the marriage book didn’t really help either. I wish I could offer something more specific, but it was a while ago now. We would read Genesis and see nothing but lies, deceit and death and think, “Man, I don’t remember that stuff when I was a kid” And the book of Leviticus! Don’t even get me started. We made it all the way to 2 Samuel before we just lost interest. It’s the furthest I’ve ever gotten in my pursuit to read the Bible front to back. I’ve read large pieces of the bible in other sections. It’s just not a very interesting book.

The marriage book we used was mostly good. However, there was some stuff in there that I just didn’t agree with–being submissive to husbands and such. I didn’t want to be submissive, I wanted to be an equal. And we are. My husband and I were married in 2011 by a Church of Christ minister.

My husband was brought up Lutheran, and he’s a somewhat spiritual guy, but we just weren’t all that diligent about going to church every week. Church was too early in the morning, and it just a little bit boring. Besides, he had three kids from a previous marriage, and our time to be with them was Sunday. We just didn’t have time to go to church. You can see here that my priorities were something like: husband, family, and then church.

The Third De-Conversion Era

Influential Idea Mentors

All throughout this time, between dating Jeremiah and meeting my husband, I’ve enjoyed a fairly robust social life in online chat rooms. I’ve met a few people that have truly been gemstones in my life. My husband in fact, was one of them–but that’s another story. 🙂

One friend in particular: Jeremy. Jeremy was from the Churches of Christ too, and I always thought of him as an ally because there aren’t that many of us from the Churches of Christ. I felt like he especially knew where I was coming from. As long as I’ve known him, he has devoted his life to the study of truth: religion, science, and philosophy. I “witnessed” his slow de-conversion over many years of correspondence. As I write this, he’s working toward his PhD in religious studies. He has always challenged my deeply held convictions in a gentle and respectful manner. He made me think. Actually, he still does. His mental capacity far exceeds my own. If I’m benching 40 lbs. on the mental strength machine, he’s benching 300 lbs. I will sometimes feel literally exhausted after a long chat session, and I love that about him.

The Fourth De-Conversion Era

My New Home in Humanism

About a year after I was married, I called myself agnostic. At one point I stumbled across A.C. Grayling’s Humanist Bible, and really enjoyed reading the poetic and colorful language that reminded me so much of my own Bible. I wondered to myself, what is Humanism? When I looked it up and read their fundamentals, I knew I had found my home.  (I will write another post with my thoughts on Humanism later.)

About this time I watched Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”. With my new-found home in Humanism, and a budding realization of “gods don’t exist”, I remember watching Cosmos with a profound sense of awe and humility. The universe is so vast; I am so small.

Since the dawn of humanity’s existence, we have asked ourselves, “How did we all get here?” It was perfectly rational for ancient man to say “god did it” based on their limited understanding of the physical world. They built a “god” for themselves, a projection of the best (and incidentally some of the worst) features of humanity, as well as combining their deepest desires for immortality and life beyond the grave.

However, we no longer need god to explain the origins of our earth. Generations of study by extremely intelligent people are helping everyone piece together the answer to the question, “How did we all get here?” for themselves. We have a pretty rough idea, but we have a lot to learn. Today, many religious people believe in a creation narrative, and often point to the gaps in scientists’ knowledge as proof of god. I hate to break it to them, but god is running out of places to hide.

The Final De-Conversion Event

I’m an Atheist

At this point, I freely called myself a humanist to anyone that asked me. It sounded so nice and approachable. Even to religious folks, it just kind of sounded like another brand of Christianity. After joining a few atheist communities on Facebook and listening to commentary by prominent atheist thinkers, I realized something. I can’t hide behind the word “Humanist” anymore.

I’m still a humanist by the way, but I’m also an atheist.

Atheism has some unfortunate stigma attached to it, and I believe this is one reason people avoid self-labeling atheist. To be called an atheist could be social, familial and career suicide. This visceral fear of atheists needs to stop, and the best remedy is education and example.

Call me vain if you wish, but I believe myself to be a moral person. I’m kind to others, work hard, love my husband, raise my kid right, and I’m loyal to my family. The mere fact that I don’t believe in god has no bearing on me being a good person. I’m good simply for the sake of being good. People need to see this about atheists. We’re not baby eaters that denounced god so that we can freely live in sin. This isn’t some kind of rebellion against god. We simply don’t believe in god, and belief is not something that can be forced. Don’t worry about us, we’re good without god.

I should add that there are still some close family members that I have not come out to. I discuss that further in my article: Why I Won’t “Come Out” as an Atheist.

It’s really fun being an atheist. Religion had held something over me that I didn’t know was there until it wasn’t. I’m not afraid of knowledge anymore. I don’t fear people’s differing viewpoints, I relish them. Give me a sticky issue, and I will honestly consider both sides of the issue without being informed by my religious bias. I’ve learned to love learning all over again!

Well that about sums it up. Questions? Contact me privately if you like, or leave your thoughts below.

 

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