Walking Away From Christianity

Leaving the church was the single most difficult choice I've ever had to make.  Those who've never been in that situation may not realize what a struggle it can be.  It seems simple enough, doesn't it?  You no longer believe in God, so why would you stay?

It's no fun telling your parents you'll be spending the afterlife in hell.

Obviously, I don't believe that, but at the time they absolutely did.  I knew this beforehand, too, which is why I didn't tell them for two years after I came to the realization myself.  But let's back up a bit.

I went to college believing in God.  I grew up in a conservative Church of Christ, my father an elder, grandfather once a preacher.  From birth I had attended church services or classes at least three times a week, with little exposure to other religions or philosophies, and I believed it all.

When I moved out for college, though, things started to change.  Without the strong support system I grew up with, I started to waver in my faith.  I wanted to believe, but I was suddenly aware of just how weak the foundation for my beliefs was.  I immediately set out to strengthen it through intense study and thought.

Never before had I done any self-directed study of Christianity; I had always followed the lesson plans from my bible class, which, as it turns out, is a really bad idea.  I was amazed at how little of the theology and doctrine I had grown up with could be reasonably supported by the Bible.  At this point, I wasn't questioning the validity of the Bible itself, but each new falsehood or unsupported tenet opened my mind a bit more.

It seems absurd now, but I really did believe evolution was a hoax.  But when I opened my mind to the possibility of non-literal readings of the Bible, I no longer needed young-earth creationism.  It no longer mattered whether Genesis was a literal historic account or metaphor.  Only then was I able to objectively look at the evidence regarding evolution.

Over a two year period, I gradually went from fundamentalist Christian to atheist.  The intellectual freedom was invigorating, but I had a problem:  how do I break away from the church?

If you've read my "Church or social club" post, you'll instantly see one big hurdle to leaving the church - the social benefits of staying.  A large percentage of my friends attended the same church and no doubt would be cautioned to not socialize too much with an avowed atheist.  My roommate and best friend was included in that group, and that living arrangement would have been very awkward.

Beyond that, my father was an elder at a Church of Christ, and I knew if I went public, he'd be asked to step down and people would view him differently.  He had dedicated twenty-five years of his life to that church, and, along with family, it was the focus of his life.  I wanted no part of doing that to my dad.

But more than anything, I didn't want my parents worried about my spiritual well-being.  It didn't matter what the truth was; in my parents' minds, their son would be going to hell.  My parents mean the world to me, and I just couldn't do that to them.

So what did I do?  I kept going to church and played along.  I was a hypocrite, lying every day of my life.  I said things that disgusted me, supported principles I despised.  I hated myself for it, but thought it better than the alternative.

I did this for two years.  Two entire years I lied to everyone about my core beliefs, save a few non-Christian friends I could trust.  It was exhausting, mentally and emotionally, but the end was near.

After graduation, I took a job in a new city.  I had a fresh start, so I wasn't nearly as worried about the social consequences of my apostasy.  I also realized that my parents would soon figure out that I wasn't attending church, so there was little point in continuing the charade.  And I was tired.  The experience had drained me, and I just didn't want to lie anymore.

It didn't make it any easier to tell my parents, though.  They cried when I first told them.  They cried for weeks afterward, maybe longer.  In a sense, they respected the fact that my beliefs were the result of years of study, but they made every attempt to persuade me to return to the church.

That was easily the worst experience of my life.  Everyone has had their heart broken, but for me, this was infinitely worse than anything I've ever felt.

For a while, it played out a lot like I expected.  My dad proactively resigned as an elder.  Things were never the same for my parents at that congregation, and they eventually started attending elsewhere.  I received a number of notes that people were praying for me or offers to study the Bible, but the friendships aren't what they used to be (though this is largely because of location).

My dad started a crash-course study in apologetics, evolution, and anything he thought would help convince me to return to the church.  Amazingly, at least to me, he's actually become much more moderate in his beliefs, though still a Christian.  Challenging beliefs you've held since childhood is a struggle, but I know he's genuinely interested in pursuing the truth.  You can't ask for more than that.

Was it all worth it?  Absolutely.  You can't live a lie to the extent I did and be happy.  Once the initial fallout cleared, I have been far more engaged with life than I ever was as a Christian.  Atheism may leave a god-shaped hole, but it also gives you the freedom to fill it with things you love.

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