Two years ago*, I became very frustrated with my back and forth relationship with belief. After feeling confident about coming out as an atheist, I had an “epiphany” that I was wrong and decided to determine what it was that I believed once and for all. Once and for all—quite an unrealistic expectation as I look back on it. But I was tired of waffling between Christianity and unbelief in any god at all. I wanted to be sure I was making the right decision, but as it turns out, I don’t really get to make a decision about what I believe. No matter how much I try to choose my beliefs, my beliefs just are. I can choose to look at things with a skeptic’s eye, or I can choose to ignore problems with claims as far as not investigating those nagging doubts, but in the end, I can’t un-know what I’ve learned, and I can’t deny logic. I just can’t choose to have faith. I have come to realize that belief is not a choice once the eyes are opened. It’s like seeing your parents fill your stockings in the middle of the night before Christmas. The illusion of Santa Claus is forever shattered. But I did try.
At one point, I wondered if I was just doing Christianity wrong. After having this epiphany that I was wrong about God not existing, I still struggled with faith, especially in the bible. I just couldn’t make myself believe that it was the inerrant word of God. It was full of contradictions, there was no original text to track changes, many things clearly contradicted what we know from science, but most of all, God did not seem like a god to me. He seemed like a man, a man created by a patriarchal culture, a flawed man, who valued vengeance, and demanded worship to feed an ego that seemed to go against my idea of an all-powerful perfect and good god. Not only that, the god of the bible seemed to contradict himself. He demanded things from us that he did not deliver on himself, namely humility and mercy. He also created imperfect beings, gave them free will, but demanded that they “freely” obey him, accept him, believe in him, or be punished.
Furthermore, it really bothered me that many places in the bible blatantly state that God causes certain people to not believe; he closes their eyes and hearts to the truth, so they cannot receive him and salvation. How is that free will? And how is that fair? Supposedly, he then uses them to fulfill his purposes. Not only does this seem unfair, it seems downright evil. But because I had this “revelation” that he was real (It is worth noting here that this epiphany came to me during a theatrical performance of Paradise Lost in which I closely identified with Lucifer), I thought it must be me. Maybe I wasn’t praying enough, confessing enough, or I didn’t have enough faith because I didn’t read the bible enough, everything that most churches will tell you that you need to do in order to develop a close relationship with God. So, I decided to do everything I could to do what was supposed to help me believe and have the right attitude. I committed to spending ninety days with God, praying, asking for faith, asking for God to reveal truth to me, reading the bible, journaling about what I read, and worshiping with music and meditation.
Every day I started by asking forgiveness for my unbelief and by praying Psalms 51:10-11, which says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (NKJV). I prayed for God to work in my heart, and I was sincere. It is worth noting that when I began this ninety-day commitment, I actually believed God was real even though I struggled with what kind of god he was.
I began reading the New Testament in Matthew and read through Acts. Everyday I would read a chapter or more, continuing until coming to a logical place to stop in the narrative, or slowing down when I required more thought on a passage. I would highlight it, meditate on it, pray for understanding, and then journal my thoughts and a prayer or two to God. I would end with another similar prayer, but more personal. Later in the day, I would listen to praise music and worship along with it. I would meditate on God or scripture as well. I did this whole-heartedly, expecting God to work in my heart.
When I first made this commitment, I honestly thought to myself that this was my last chance. I had devoted hours, days, and weeks to reading theology, bible commentary, listening and calling into Christian talk shows, talking to pastors, and looking for answers to questions I didn’t understand. I thought if this didn’t work, I was done. I would devote no more of life to searching in vain. The first few weeks were hard. I didn’t want to do it, I dreaded it, and I even had nightmares about the church being a cult that I needed to escape. Some people said this was a spiritual attack, and others said it was my subconscious telling me what I really thought about the religion. I’ve come to believe the latter.
Previously, I had always thought that most of my problems were with the Old Testament version of God. He is the one who commanded that whole races be wiped out, including small children and people who had nothing to do with whatever the rest were guilty of. He was the one who said to stone children who disobeyed, kill homosexuals, and plunder villages, leaving no one alive. But while reading the New Testament, I saw similar contradictions. For one thing, Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles advocated for the behavior in the Old Testament and keeping the law. And then I read the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. To paraphrase, the early church members sold their personal belongings and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet to distribute to anyone as they had need. Well, Ananias and Sapphira sold their land, and gave some of the proceeds to the church. Peter confronted them saying, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:1-4, NKJV). Ananias, after hearing these words, fell down and died. Then Peter asked Sapphira if the amount they gave was the whole price they had received, and she lied, saying yes. Then Peter, knowing she lied, asked, “‘How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things” (Acts 5; 9-11, NKJV). Presumably God struck them down for having an unfortunately natural human reaction. Yes, I realize that in Christianity, natural human reactions are sin, but if Ananias and Sapphira would have been given a minute to think about it, feel guilty about it, they most likely would have changed their minds and given it all. I mean, they didn’t have to give any of it, so they obviously believed in the cause, but the normal human reaction is to be afraid, afraid to give up everything and trust. If they were condemned for a momentary lapse of trust, then we were all doomed. Oh, and by the way, this is advocating for Socialism, which Christians today seem to abhor.
Whenever I’ve heard this taught in church, the pastor always emphasizes that Ananias and Sapphira lied to God, not just men, and it wasn’t about the money. So what? Does that make it right? Does that mean they deserve to be struck dead? I’ve always had a problem with a major tenet of the Christian religion—the idea that because we are all sinners, we deserve to go to everlasting punishment. I agree, we are all flawed and sometimes do immoral things. No one is perfect. No one is worthy—wait, worthy of what? Heaven? Life? Punishment for sin is death. Okay, that seems reasonable, maybe, I mean if we’re talking just not living forever. But flaming torment without end? I don’t believe anyone deserves that. To me that sounds suspiciously like a human invention, an angry vengeful, wronged, and bitter human answer to taking care of people who do things they don’t like, or perhaps, someone who wants to frighten people into conformity. So, I don’t care if it was about the money or lying to God (the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira). They didn’t deserve it. And I don’t believe a loving father-God makes examples out of his children, so others will learn. Would you let one of your children step in front of a speeding vehicle, so the rest of your children will learn to look both ways? Of course not. I longed for answers, but everywhere the answers were shallow, didn’t make any sense, or just fell way too short of logic. And my problems with the New Testament don’t end there. How about the whole disturbing concept of blood sacrifice? But that’s another blog.
Anyway, I continued reading, praying, and worshiping, but my heart moved further and further from God. Did I even want to believe this stuff? The miracles didn’t bother me. If God created the world, then he could part the Red Sea, but the fact that he didn’t bother showing us any of these miracles made me wonder, made me doubt. Of course, the entire creation story completely contradicts what we know about the earth and the universe, so maybe it just isn’t supposed to be taken literally. But it comes down to this for me: Doesn’t he want us to believe? Isn’t he capable of showing himself to an unbelieving world? Wouldn’t a loving and powerful god know just how to reach each and every one of us? Maybe he just doesn’t care. Maybe he is evil. Probably, this god just doesn’t exist. The stock answer from Christians is that we just don’t understand the mind of god, he wants us to have free will, and it’s to test our faith. From the bible, I think we understand the mind of god too well—he acts just like a violent, sexist tyrant with the prejudices of an ancient patriarchal society. Free will doesn’t make sense because even if we knew God existed, we could still choose not to worship him. Satan and his followers did. Faith shouldn’t matter because the Old Testament people weren’t required to believe without seeing. They had miracles in their faces every day. Why should we be required to believe on less evidence?
But what was most disturbing to me were the contradictions in the bible about the basic tenets of salvation. Every religion claims to know exactly what, as Paul puts it, is the “Way” to salvation, but how could they, when it is not at all clear in the scriptures? For example, and I could give you many, it says in Acts 2:38, “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (NKJV). When I ask about this, I always get referred to a different part of scripture that says the opposite. But that only proves it’s contradictory, not which way is right. The very fact that it is contradictory points to none of it being right, or at least that it is all suspect.
Then the other thing that many Christians disagree about, but seem to think is really a non-issue, is the idea of predestination or Calvinism–that God chooses whom he will give knowledge and faith to, and who will be saved. Here is one verse among many that supports that, “Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, Lest they should see with their eyes, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them’” (John 12:39-40). Verses like this make me think that if this God were real, I must be one of those people that God won’t let believe because no matter what I did, I doubted. But then there are verses like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (NKJV). Again, this doesn’t prove anyone can be saved; it just proves the bible contradicts itself, and no one, no matter what they say, can know the true “Way,” even within the confines of Christianity.
Now some Christians say that this is not important; we can go on regardless of which way it is, but I can’t see how. If the bible contradicts itself, it cannot be trusted, so therefore, all of it is in question. I do see obvious moral lessons and wisdom from some parts of the bible that are valuable, as I do with the wisdom of many religions, but I cannot base my beliefs on it, especially when so many things in it contradict my own internal moral values like killing groups of people because some of them have sinned, or raping and pillaging, slavery, subjugating women, or condemning homosexuals for feelings they did not choose.
So the conclusion of my ninety days with God was that I don’t believe I spent time with God at all. It was actually confirmation to me that I could never again be a Christian. It set me on a path of critical thinking and skepticism as it has for numerous atheists. So, beware, studying the bible too closely very often causes apostasy. Most atheists I know personally believed at one time, but turned away after studying the bible too closely, usually in an effort to be a better Christian.
I no longer feel the need to force myself to believe. I don’t need or want a reward for being good, and neither do I deserve to go to hell for being human. I’ve come to terms with this. I may be wrong. But if I am wrong, then there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t make myself believe something I don’t. I feel that even if I tried to brainwash myself again, it wouldn’t work because once I woke up and realized the truth, I couldn’t un-know it. By the way, I think that “epiphany” I had was a normal psychological reaction to my cultural conditioning, but I broke free from the cult of religion once and for all—at least I hope so.—Christina Knowles
*Note: Originally published in 2010