One of the greatest challenges of my life has been the journey of discovery that led me to abandon the religion of my upbringing, and the core beliefs about myself and the world around me that went along with it. Although tremendously challenging, the journey has also been one of the most rewarding; which isn't surprising since it's when we step outside our comfort zone and encounter challenges that we truly grow.
I was raised in a conservative church-going family in middle-class Australia. Every weekend my parents would take me and my two older sisters along to our mildly-progressive local Christian church. I went to Sunday School every weekend where I learned stories from the bible, learned to close my eyes when I prayed, heard about Jesus, sang cutesy Christian songs, and generally ran amok as often as I could. I was an energetic little boy, and the thought of sitting still in Sunday School every Sunday morning really didn't appeal to me. But at least it meant I didn't have to sit through the long church service my parents went to at the same time though, where they sang boring hymns and listened to sermons that didn't make much sense to me.
The stories they taught me in Sunday School seemed a little odd: God turning Lot's wife into a pillar of salt just for turning around at the wrong time. Jonah being swallowed by a fish; I doubted a person could survive long in a fish... how would they breathe? And Jesus being crucified for my sins and rising again, all before I was even born. The New Testament turned out to be almost 2000 years old; that's hardly what I considered “new”. Even as a kid I could see that the technological and scientific progress since then probably shed a new light on the interpretation of biblical events.
Every week I would be told to confess my sins in prayer and ask God for forgiveness. Often I would struggle to think of something to confess; surely I couldn't just keep confessing every week that I hadn't cleaned up my room like my mother was always asking me. Even when I did do it, she was never satisfied. I felt like a bad person for having so many sins that I didn't even know about, and having caused Jesus to die that horrible death on the cross. Something didn't feel quite right about all this, but over time I learned to suppress my intuition and came to believe that the problem was something wrong with me.
My parents were extremely private people, which is another way of saying that they withheld their feelings and had dreadful communication skills. They never talked directly about anything personal, especially not about how they felt or what they believed; as a result, they had a stormy relationship. I was a sensitive kid and found their arguments tremendously scary and traumatic; I could sense the tension in the house and often felt like I was walking on eggshells at home. My mother was stubborn and highly critical, and my father often seethed with resentment he couldn't express. They were so stoic, I never saw either of them cry, nor express affection towards each other and I thought they just didn't love each other. Although they were very involved in our local church and took us along every week, they never talked about their faith in God or Jesus at home. I grew up feeling uncomfortable and awkward, ashamed of who I was and what I believed.
During adolescence I started attending more senior fellowship groups at the church, and had a fairly close-knit group of church friends. I also did other activities such as Boy Scouts, and had friends from school; but these separate worlds never collided. I was a highly sensitive kid with mediocre social skills and a total lack of self-confidence, which made me an easy target for bullies at school. At high school I kept my faith under wraps most of the time; I had enough attention as it was from the local bullies without needing to be teased for being Christian. Looking back, I think I sensed at the time that the whole Christian thing wasn't really defensible, but I suppressed my intuition and kept going along to church, fellowship, and bible study groups. I loved going on church camps, getting away from home and hanging out with my other Christian friends. The friendships I made at this time have become some of my longest and most enduring.
On many occasions, I specifically prayed to ask God to forgive my sins and accepted Jesus as my personal lord and saviour. I can't say I ever felt the presence of the holy spirit, but it wasn't for lack of praying for it. I tried to read the bible every day, but frankly it was pretty boring. I went to regular bible study groups with other Christians which helped to assuage my doubts, but I often felt frustrated with a lack of guidance from God and always seemed to have to make decisions on what to do myself.
After leaving high school I went to university to study Computer Engineering. I was extremely busy studying part time while working a full-time day job, but I maintained and even deepened my involvement in the church where I grew up. I served on the Youth Ministries committee, became a steward to welcome people and help run the evening services, and later became an Elder. I was about as involved in church as a lay person could possibly be. For several years I dated a girl from my social group at the church, ultimately breaking up because I didn't want to marry her; at the time, this was the most painful experience I had ever been through. I was devastated and felt the most excruciating emotional pain I'd ever felt. It took at least two years to get over. She left the church and three months later got engaged to another guy. Ouch.
Shortly after graduating from university I took up regular volunteer work at a Christian-based telephone crisis counselling service. We were trained to be non-judgemental, to get callers to talk about their feelings, and to avoid shoving Jesus down their throat. I liked this approach, and got heavily involved in the counselling service assisting with training, taking calls, and even seeing clients face-to-face. While leading a small group on one of the counselling training courses, I met a sprightly young woman who quickly became one of my closest friends. She was disillusioned with her church, so I invited her along to mine and she became a regular attendee. She had a tempestuous relationship with her boyfriend, and when they eventually split up we started dating.
A few years later she was keen to get married, but I was not. History repeating itself painfully. She convinced me to go and see a counsellor, where I started dealing with my terribly low self-esteem and revealing the emotional impact my parent's fighting had had on me. I was so ashamed that it took months for me to open up and talk about how scared I had felt as a kid when they fought. Even just being able to cry freely in front of the counsellor was so shameful, it felt like having broken glass stuck in my eyes. I had a deep-seated fear of showing how I was feeling to other people.
At the same time, I began to question whether the God I had believed in for so long was actually real; and this frightened me. I had serious doubts and felt very uncomfortable being an Elder at the church, so I resigned but kept attending as a regular lay person. I was overloaded anyway and on the road to a serious burnout given my heavy involvement at both the counselling centre and my local church. Something had to give. Eventually my girlfriend and I split up because I didn't want to marry her either, and this breakup was even more painful and devastating than the previous one. I had no idea that a human being could feel so terrible. It took at least another two years to get over, and was worse this time around. The guilt I felt was overwhelming. My family were less than supportive, and as many of my friends had also become her friends, socialising with my friends felt painful and awkward.
After a lifetime of attending the church where I grew up, I decided it was time to leave. My ex-girlfriend was now a regular member there and it was just too painful to keep showing up and feeling awkward. I didn't want to repeat what had happened after my previous relationship where I stayed and the girl left. I was also losing interest in my job, and one of my flatmates treated me like I didn't exist. My life was a painful mess and I needed to sort it out.
My counsellor was, by his own admission, a slightly crazy off-the-wall minister from a related church with a degree in psychology. Although I was a counsellor myself, I felt terribly ashamed about needing to go to therapy and having to walk my own talk. I wasn't real keen on debating existential questions that have entertained philosophers for centuries at $120 per hour, so I started talking to the minister of my local church about what I actually believed regularly. At one of our sessions tears ran down my face and my whole body shook nervously as I revealed my true inner thoughts: “You know... I think God might not exist”. I was thoroughly distraught at the prospect. If God didn't exist, Christianity was a sham. I wouldn't be going to heaven. Death was the end of the road. That prospect scared the living shit out of me. I had only one life to live, and I'd messed an important part of it up. The repercussions were enormous.
The more widely I read, earnestly I prayed, and deeply I contemplated the teachings in the bible, the more Christianity began to unravel. My church had always taught that the 7 day creation story wasn't meant to be taken literally, so that wasn't a problem for me. What about the rest of the bible though? I discovered that the story of the virgin birth is the result of a simple misinterpretation, leading to the obvious explanation for how Mary became pregnant. I started thinking more about the historical context of the bible, the limited knowledge that its author's had and their primitive understanding of themselves and the world around them. Poorly educated fishermen make great followers, but may not be the most discerning when it comes to interpreting events. I had learned in my counselling training that people often experience hallucinations during intense grief, but since most people don't know this they think they're going crazy when it happens. It seemed quite plausible that the resurrection and Jesus's reported appearances afterwards were hallucinations and never actually happened.
The minister was open to an honest dialogue, which was a tremendous help to me. He suggested I read some relatively liberal Christian literature that had a slightly different perspective from the mainstream conservative evangelical books I'd been devouring; but I got a sense that even these authors were avoiding a fundamental obvious truth. I kept reading more and more widely, including more radical Christian authors, agnostic and atheist philosophy. For a while I felt agnostic; unable to decide whether it was all true or not. One day during our conversations he asked me “Are you still sitting on the fence Graham? Because sitting on a fence is pretty painful, isn't it?” He was right; I had to decide one way or another.
At the same time, I went church hopping. I used the opportunity to visit a wide variety of churches from conservative to pentecostal, and to ask people what they really believed. People were falling down and lying on the floor in the middle of the service at one; it was quite a spectacle. I was no longer the responsible Elder who felt that I had to have the answers; I could be the one asking the tough questions. Few people had answers I found satisfying. Most people seemed to be avoiding fear of one thing or another: feeling unloved, death, loneliness. I went to an introductory Christianity course called Alpha, and didn't hold back on expressing my doubts. I sensed that people were looking for community more than they were looking for truth, and would believe pretty much whatever they were told in order to get it. I wanted to know the truth, goddam it, I didn't want it sugar coated. I decided that truth was more important than happiness, and I would pursue the truth whatever it cost me.
I was tired of superficial Christian small-groups that never got down to reality. One night I was at a bible study where we were discussing the finer points of interpretation of a Paulian epistle, when I said “Look, what does it matter? This is just Paul's personal opinion. The God he's talking about probably doesn't even exist!”. I felt everyone was missing the forest for the trees. The group leader was perplexed and responded “Well... I kind of wonder why you're in a Christian bible study if you don't even believe in God”. Good point, I thought. It was time to give up the charade.
I quit going to church, stopped reading the bible, and kept expanding my world view even more widely. If God didn't exist he couldn't have created the universe, so I wanted to know who or what did. I read widely on the topic of creation, cosmology and evolution until I felt I had a reasonable understanding of a better explanation for how I came to be here than the simplistic one Christianity offered. I found many inconsistencies in Christian doctrine that I'd been prepared to overlook before, and realised how naïve and closed-minded I had been. It was fascinating to consider that a universe like ours could spring into existence in an uncaused quantum mechanical event without a God behind it. I found it remarkable that the very brain we use to ponder the question of the origin of the universe is a product of that same vast, incomprehensible universe. Little wonder ancient people came up with the notion of a God to explain so many things they couldn't understand. As an engineer, I'd always had a great respect for science and now this considerably outweighed my diminishing respect for religion. I felt fortunate to live at a time when we understand so much more about the world around us than the people who wrote the bible did.
Around the same time I was going through this faith crisis and relationship breakup fallout, I switched jobs in the hope of finding more inspiring work. A few years later, I was thoroughly burned out. I quit full-time work with no idea where to head. I started my own consulting business, which was fun for a while but my heart wasn't really in it. I had been passionate about computers for much of my life, but looking back I can see that in a way I was just avoiding the pain that I felt in relationships with people. Being highly sensitive and insecure, I hurt easily and criticism from other people stung deep. Computers didn't do that to you. But you can't relate emotionally to one either, so something inside me was being left unfulfilled. I became more and more interested in personal development work, emotional healing and finding deeper ways to connect with other people. I began exploring art , music, dance, theatre, writing and other creative endeavours now that I wasn't working.
Giving up the belief system behind Christianity was one thing; reversing the deep-seated emotional impact that its teaching had on my neurology was another. It wouldn't be fair to blame Christian teaching entirely for my chronic low self-esteem, since most of that was probably inherited from my parents and goes back several generations. Christianity just reinforced this dysfunction with it's notions of sinfulness, the need for salvation, labelling pride a sin, shame about sex & sexuality, and avoiding dealing with the finality of death. Over the years since declaring myself an atheist, I've healed many pockets of emotional damage deep in my psyche that held me back from being free to be my true self. This is a work in progress, and I'm not yet where I want to be... but I'm on the journey.
The underlying issues that make us want to bow down to a God that someone else invented don't just go away simply because you recognise that man made God in our own image, rather than the other way around. I still have a fairly deep sense of powerlessness, unworthiness, not being good enough and shame about who I am and what I want from life. Gradually this is being healed through meaningful, emotionally open relationships with loving people who don't have an agenda of spreading the Christian gospel.
I've often felt that I lived in a prison of my own inhibitions, and now I'm doing whatever I can to break out of that cage: acting courses, public speaking courses, spiritual, emotional & sexual healing courses. I'm making inroads into the heavy layer of guilt, fear and shame I still carry from my past. I realise that people respond to me in the way they do because of the way I communicate, so I'm learning new ways of communication which are more powerful. My self-image is gradually changing in the process, but it doesn't happen overnight. I'm aware that many people suffer the effects of religious indoctrination and may never overcome it, but I figure that so long as I'm alive, there's hope.
I sometimes wonder whether people are happier when living in reality, or when living in denial; if they're happier in reality, why do so many choose to live in denial? Research shows that religious people tend to be happier on average than those who don't believe and the most obvious payoff is the connection you get with other people from living in a faith community. I'm a little less attached to being right nowadays, but authenticity is still important to me. I can't profess a belief that doesn't ring true to me. On the other hand, I've believed plenty of negative beliefs about myself which feel true but actually aren't really, for a long time. Now I'm gradually letting them go. I'm also connecting more deeply with many people outside of the narrow and often judgemental confines of christendom, and I no longer feel the need for a church community to sustain me.
I now believe that human nature is not as fundamentally flawed as Christianity suggests. We are not going to hell if we don't repent, and never were. Believers are not going to heaven either. Jesus didn't die for our sins, and we don't need salvation. That anxious feeling of abandonment that we all get at times, which Christians relieve by believing in a loving personal God, can be relieved more fully by healing the emotional wounds which cause the anxious feeling in the first place. Connecting with other real, live people helps too; it just requires better social skills. The relief from guilt and shame that we get be believing in redemption via Jesus can be felt more permanently by finding less judgemental people to hang around with until we learn to forgive ourselves, take responsibility for our lives, and make amends for the things we regret. This is better because it goes deeper, it's based in reality, and you don't take on someone else's control agenda ending up with more guilt and shame in the process. The feeling of connectedness we gain from communities with strong us-and-them boundaries defined by doctrinal differences can be gained by learning to communicate with people from the heart, and finding social groups defined by something other than a common belief system that must go unchallenged. All these things are more difficult initially, but ultimately more rewarding than importing an invented belief system into your life wholesale.
Giving up the belief system of my childhood was hard, but it's one of the most important things I've done to be more true to myself. My family are mostly still church-goers and I'm something of the odd one out; letting go of the need to fit in has been difficult and speaking the truth in front of them still causes me anxiety. The great challenge for me remains overcoming the sense of guilt, fear and shame I inherited while growing up. Connecting with loving, supportive, non-judgemental people is helping, as is speaking out against religious indoctrination.
I think the antidote to all forms of bogus religiosity, from conservative Christianity to Islamic terrorism, is education. Fighting deeply entrenched religious beliefs head-on just reinforces them and causes further division. We need to give everyone a better understanding of how our brains work and why we are susceptible to taking on superstitious beliefs in the first place.
Ultimately discerning the truth has been the most liberating thing I have done in my life, and I am tremendously glad that I am travelling this difficult and rewarding road. I no longer bow in submission to a God that doesn't exist, but there are still relics of cultural, religious and emotional baggage to deal with. Although I would no longer turn to it as my first port of call, there is still some wisdom in the bible: as Jesus is reported to have said, “The truth will set you free”.
I'm interested in your story too... please leave a comment with your thoughts.