My Journey Out Of Christianity

How I Came To Be An Atheist

Copyright © 2015 and 2017 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published 2015.02.10, Updated 2017.07.17

To fully explore my transition from Christian fundamentalism to atheism would require an entire autobiography. This page merely hits the highlights of my doubts, thought processes, and eventual realizations.

It is still very long. Click here to read an abbreviated, bullet-point version.

Where I Started

To fully understand what follows, you should know my solidly Christian background.

Some Things To Note

A curious thing about my transformation is that I rarely realized it was happening. Therefore writing this page was not as simple as recalling memories or going through old writings. In places, I had to deconstruct my old thought processes. Where possible, I have relied on my past writing — including journals, letters, poetry, and even fiction — to shed light on my thoughts at the time.

If one only reads the excepts from my writings I have selected, it would seem I was very aware and concentrating on it all the time. But these are cherry-picked from among many thousands of words I wrote.

Further note that it wasn’t entirely an intellectual process, as much as I wish it had been. Especially in my teens and early 20s, emotion was a big part of it too. Today, it’s easy to calmly sift through my past without much angst, but it is clear that there was plenty of it then: hopelessness, fear, anger, sadness, frustration, interrupting long periods of joy, comfort, hope, and confidence.

The process only became rational near the end, as you will see.

I want this to be clear: the emotions were not the cause of, nor helpful for, my changing beliefs. If anything, they were a hindrance. I am convinced that my journey would have been much shorter and much easier without the guilt and fear clouding my judgment.

And lastly, my journey was not a straight line from point A to point B.

The Stages

My transformation was not a straight line. The path was jagged. If “Theist” is on one side of the graph and “Atheist” is on the other, a timeline of my life between them would waver and swoop.

We each define ourselves based on our own paradigms. I wasn’t simply redefining myself, I was shifting from one paradigm to another, long before I knew that word’s definition. Inside the original worldview, I didn’t believe that other paradigms were legitimate.

For years I subconsciously defined myself as a failed Christian, which is a definition only possible for someone who still believes in a specific god and a specific set of rules. I thought I could get back someday. I wanted badly to “get back”, and I thought it must be necessary.

Overall, however, my shifts in belief could be described in seven “stages”, or “positions”:

1. Original Position: The entirely true Bible accurately describes the God that certainly exists.
2. The God of the Bible (who definitely exists) isn’t making himself evident to me; perhaps life is some kind of cruel test.
3. I think there is a god, but there’s really no way to know what it’s like. Ancient religious texts are a mishmash of prehistoric legends and idealized oral histories.
4. There is probably a god.
5. Uncertain. Gods sound exactly like what an ancient culture would invent for its own purposes.
6. No opinion.
7. Current position: There is no evidence of anything supernatural. Incredibly unlikely that there is any god.

Clearly, these positions don’t match up well with Richard Dawkin’s scale of certainty. I had never heard of such a thing when I was struggling with these thoughts and doubts, and didn’t learn of it until after I had written the above list specifically for this page.

There was overlap. When checking my writings from these times, it’s clear that the positions cannot be accurately delineated by time. I did not move from #1 to #2, and so on down the list. The first two stages repeated themselves often in my journals, with stage #3 thrown in occasionally, from late high school through my college years (1990-95). Post-college (1995-2005), I spent about two years flipping from #2 to #3, but then stages #3 through #5 were the primary occupants of my mental merry-go-round. From ‘05 through today, I went through #4 through #7 in order, though there was still noticeable overlap. During this last period, I wrote almost nothing about it.

Position #2 is the most untenable, logically (because the God of the Bible regularly interacts with humans and is very interested in proving himself), yet that stage took a few years for me to move past.

The final, current position ultimately makes for a less interesting, wholly unmagical worldview, but it is more believable, reasonable, and — without question — less violent and more moral. It is certainly more explainable and more observable.

Why did it take so long to move past positions #2? Fear (see below) and the inability to understand the world without the Bible and God.

In The Beginning

How did it start? And when?

It happened naturally. There is no single key in my story that will help free others from religion. There are, however, glaring signs in this story for any believers hoping to prevent others from going down my road. You’ll need a god for which evidence is readily available and make sure your claims match up more accurately with reality.

The first evidence of doubt on my part is in my journal, on March 10, 1990 — I was about 17.5 years old and nearly finished with high school. It was during the act of praying when:
“I even started doubting if God were really real. I told God that if He were real, He’d give me a sign, like any thing that would be undoubtably (sic) from Him, to let me believe for the rest of my life.”
In a poem four months later, I twisted a line from the hymn “Amazing Grace”, thusly: “I will soon be lost, Yet once I was found”, almost as if predicting what would eventually happen.

What I was seeing in life was the direct absence of a deity’s influence, especially the kind of deity that my Bible described.
These doubts were organic, not forced when someone challenged my belief with a philosophical argument. And for the most part they were not initiated by some tragedy or bad thing in my life. They were forced by my faith and by the assertions of my church and my Bible that God was not only real, but was here among us, in us, and involved. What I was seeing in life was the direct absence of a deity’s influence, especially the kind of deity that my Bible described.

A god like the one I believed in would have chosen those exact moments to show Himself. A pat on the shoulder, a word to the wise, a blazing sign in the heavens, a fleece. Instead there was silence.
“This... difficulty is impossible for me to solve, and God chooses not to intervene... How cruel could the God of the Universe be to bring me into such an inevitable pattern of self-destruction?”

Journal, 1994.06.13

It was a test, I knew. A test to see if I would keep believing in Him despite his standoffishness. A test to see if I could think of other ways He was actually helping and caring for me. And I did think of those things. “He’s allowing me to breathe, and I’m breathing air He created just for this purpose”, I would tell myself. He must want me to be stronger in my faith, to learn more of the Bible, to practice my beliefs more obviously.

Prayers, Answered And Unanswered

As a teenager — and increasingly so as a young adult — it became difficult to keep believing when witnessing the “power of prayer”. I did not keep a tally of every prayer I ever prayed. But the accumulating impression was this: most of the “answered” prayers were things that would have happened anyway. I wrote in a letter in 1996:
“But I do still believe that He answers prayer. I know that all last week, I prayed that He would keep my muffler from falling off my car, and He did. Of course, then I drove through a car wash, and the bump at the end ripped the muffler off. Poor muffler. But the point is, He answers.”
I arrived safely at my destinations regardless of whether I prayed for safe travel. Athletes were injured during ball games whether we prayed for their safety or not. People died from illnesses whether I prayed for their healing or not, and others recovered, whether I prayed for them or not.

Some of the starving children were fed — because we also sent money. No one was fed by miracles.
Of course, if the outcome matched the prayer, it was a “miracle”. If it didn’t, I forgot it as quickly as possible or muttered something about it being God’s will. A poignant example of this was a couple at my church who had a baby with no brain — just a fluid-filled cavity in its head. Hundreds of faithful folk, including me, repeatedly prayed fervently for this hopeless little tyke who was kept alive by machines for a while and then died. We prayed for starving children in countries we’d seen on the news. Some of them were fed — because we also sent money. No one was fed by miracles.

The cumulative effect of this was depressing — and mind-boggling to someone (me) who had never thought of life any other way. There had to be a reason why prayer seemed to have no effect, and I set out to find this reason.

The Bible gives a few requirements for getting prayers answered: (1) ask in Jesus’ name (John 16:24), (2) believe (Matt. 21:22, James 1:6-8), (3) ask with the right motives (James 4:3), (4) avoid sin (Isaiah 59:2, John 9:31), (5) pay attention to the poor (Prov. 21:13), (6) remain in Christ and make sure His word remains in us (John 15:7), and (7) ask according to His will (I John 5:14-15). Plus, more than one preacher said God would be more likely to answer prayers of people who tithed. Fasting was supposed to help too.

So I examined myself and my prayers. I was asking in Jesus’ name, believing He could do anything, asking with what I believed were correct motives, heeding the cry of the poor as best I could, and remaining “in Christ” and keeping His Word in me. I was tithing twenty percent of my income in those years. I had fasted for days on end while praying, on multiple occasions.

That left only God’s will and the sin thing.

The Bible said “ask, and ye shall receive”. It said we could move literal mountains with our prayers. We could walk on water.
Was it really God’s will that hungry children should starve to death? Or that babies should be born and die with only fluid in their cranial cavities? I hadn’t even heard of the most painful childhood diseases in those days. Also, if only prayers according to God’s will were answered, and if his will would be done whether we prayed or not, then why did the Bible say “ask, and ye shall receive”? It said we could move literal mountains with our prayers. We could walk on water.

As far as avoiding sin, well, I researched that too. I John 5:18 says “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin”. Other verses say that of course we continue to sin, but God continues to forgive us, which seemed like a contradiction to me (and still does, though many preachers attempted to explain it away). I carefully identified anything in my life that could possibly be identified as ‘sin”, and worked to excise it (and prayed for God’s help to that end). And still my prayers were not answered.

I concluded — some time during Bible college — that either (1) some sin I couldn’t identify or avoid was causing God to ignore me, or (2) it was almost never His will that my prayers should be answered. I struggled on in darkness, wanting badly to know how to fix it.

It was years later before I looked at these conundrums objectively. If God’s will is going to happen, no matter what, and if the only prayers that will be answered are according to his will, then what’s the point of praying? If all of us will alway sin, but the only prayers that can be answered are from sin-free people, then why pray?

At one point, long before the book The Prayer of Jabez was published in 2000, I preached on I Chronicles 4:9-10, stuck in the middle of a boring genealogy, about a man named Jabez, whose only qualification was that he was “more honorable than his brothers”. He asked the Lord to bless him and give him more land, and to be kept from harm and free from pain. “And God granted his request.” Boom.

That was a fairly selfish prayer, all things considered. But even my selfless prayers were going unheeded.

Looking back, perhaps the only tangible outcome of my prayers was the heightened emotional state I could achieve during them — sometimes bordering on ecstasy, which to an outsider would probably appear to be a “fit” or seizure of some kind. It is probably not a coincidence that this happened more often when I was fasting.

The original source of my doubt then, without question, was my religion, and how it didn’t match up with reality.
The original source of my doubt then, without question, was my religion, and how it didn’t match up with reality. Had the Bible not promised that prayers could be answered, I would not have expected them to be. If it had stopped at “God’s will shall be done” and not included a hundred examples of prayers being answered — and dozens of examples of prayer changing God’s mind — there would have been no initial cause for doubt.

After each recorded incidence of such doubt, my journals are filled with brilliant testimony of completely trusting in God again and assuming His hand in everything. And my poems returned to their usual preachy nature (example).

But the instances kept happening, even after I decided that the only thing a true Christian could do is be a missionary (“If you’re not a missionary, then you’re a mission field”, courtesy of David Baroni, and Why YOU Should Go To The Mission Field, by Keith Green), and even after enrolling at a Bible college affiliated with my denomination.

The Bible College Years

• First Year, 1991-92

While at Bible college, it was rare that I doubted God’s existence. Everyone around me was a fervent believer, intent on the ministry. It was a preacher’s college, a place that turned out pastors, missionaries, evangelists, youth pastors, music ministers, and more. Very few people showed up to that college hoping to have a normal college experience. We were out to change the world.

During my second semester there, I wrote in my journal that there “came a wonderful outpouring of the Holy Spirit” during a class on the book of Acts. I described my hopes for my ministry and “I am once again getting excited”. I determined to pray “more often, more seriously, and for the right reasons” and added (in all caps) “I want to know Christ for who he really is, in all his power, in all the reality of who he really is.”

Yet just two days later I wrote the sorrowful and doubtful poem So It Seems, which begins:
“message after message is preached
many hearts are being reached
    or so it seems
Tear after tear rolls down cheeks
We hear the Spirit when He speaks
    or so it seems”
It was such a powerful expression of doubt that I felt guilty about it and hid it among older files and lost it for two decades. (See below why the doubt bothered me so much.) Two weeks later, I recorded in my journal that I walked in the woods behind my college, praying, and again asked God “for some kind of special revelation of Himself”.

Publicly, I did well enough. I was selected to preach to my entire freshman class of two hundred students. I spoke in youth and adult Sunday School classes at the church I attended during college. After one such class, my college’s senior class president — a powerful preacher in her own right — made a point to say she was impressed with the lesson I delivered. I was working nearly full time, carrying a full load of classes, volunteering two nights a week at the college’s radio station, preaching at a mission downtown, and still managing to compete in a weeks-long chess tournament. I was elected to be Vice President of my class the following year.

In the summer, back home, I worked 60 hours a week, trying to save up enough money to get back to school, preached to the youth group, preached at our church. That summer, my only remaining grandfather died, as did the faithful dog I’d had since a child. Both deaths shook me emotionally, but I was certain both went to Heaven.

• Second Year, 1992-93

My second year at college saw a very strong renewal of faith. My journal shows that any doubts I had were about my own abilities, whether I was actually “called” to preach, and my own personality. Never about God.

I did wonder (September 1992) whether I had “a tragic flaw... It could be the things I say.” I also admitted to myself that there was a communication gap between myself and God, but affirmed my belief in him using both the Cosmological argument and the Argument from morality. I continued to preach, to study, and to publish the devotional newsletter I’d begun in 1991. I studied hermeneutics, homiletics, history of missions, church government, cultural anthropology, sign language, and theology, and took a second job as a part-time janitor at a church.

My most intense struggle during this time was with something completely natural, yet something I saw as a sin: attraction. Surprise! I was a 20-year-old straight guy, attracted to females. Because Jesus had said (Matthew 5:27-28) “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”, I thought I was sinning every day. This was incompatible with my purpose in life and my belief in the Bible.

I John 5:3 said I wasn’t loving God unless I was keeping his commandments, and that “his commands are not burdensome”. The same chapter assures us that “anyone born of God does not continue to sin”, so I began to wonder if I was even a real Christian. This command actually was “burdensome”. And a few chapters earlier: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (I John 3:6).

• Third Year, 1993-94

I missed half my third year at Bible college due to a too-high school bill that had to be paid off. That turned into a spiritual struggle as well. I questioned my “call” to the ministry. If God wasn’t helping me stay in school via funding, then perhaps that’s not where he wanted me to be. I prayed almost constantly about this, disturbed that I was doing the wrong thing — growing up in the charismatic, prosperity gospel 1980s, it was kind of ingrained in us that money would never be an issue as long as we were following God’s plans for our lives.

During that time, I attended (relatively inexpensive) classes at a city college while working full-time at a supermarket and sharing a car with my sister and Dad. I didn’t understand that I had overloaded myself for more than two years straight — in addition to my guilt and confusion indicated above. I was “considering going insane... I would be an eligible candidate for such an illness... but... As long as I hold to a definite and concrete belief in the God of the Bible, I shall have no fear of insanity” (Sept. 1993). I worried that I was a “materialist” because I owned things — clothes, hair gel, cassette tapes (Oct. ‘93), and maybe that was keeping me from God.

Then I fell in with a young woman from work who said she was trying to straighten up her life. To her, I seemed to be exactly the guy who could help with that. Maybe I did help a little. But instead of me pulling her up, we met in the middle somewhere — I compromised some of my core values and it haunted me on and off for years.
“Shadows haunt the hallways of my mind, dancing in mockery, leering at my foolishness... The Word of God, pure and holy, leans over my shoulder, witnessing my conduct, and keeping record... And now... should I crumble inwardly, utterly destroying my God-given sense of self-worth?”

(Nov. 1993)

I was physically distressed by this, experiencing several nosebleeds and fainting spells, all of which I managed to conceal from those around me. In hindsight, it’s a wonder I didn’t succumb to a mental illness.

God still wasn’t talking to me or answering my prayers.
And then I returned to Bible college in the spring of 1994, a changed man. I threw myself back into the flow of things: work, classes, prayer, socializing. There was no doubt recorded this semester. I fasted several times, including instances that induced physical sickness from lack of nutrition. Yet I mention in my journal “my growing coldness” and several instances of extreme curfew violations — something I never would have considered the first two years. There is evidence of growing emotional problems. I began to feel like I couldn’t better myself, that no amount of effort was succeeding. God still wasn’t talking to me or answering my prayers.

In the summer of ‘94, I considered quitting college, but instead I saved for a return. I preached to my home church’s youth group and to the adult congregation.

• Fourth Year, 1994-95

During my last year at Bible College, I had the longest romantic relationship of my pre-marriage life, decided to be a missionary to Russia, learned basic Russian, and suffered through laryngitis and bronchitis (at the same time). I wasn’t having doubts about God anymore, and in fact once mentioned someone else having “doubts about God... just like I used to”, indicating that I’d put it behind me.

But things were not well. “There is still a hollow place in my heart that cries for fellowship with the Divine”, I wrote, and I had grown tired of trying with no results.
“So somehow I merely ‘muddle’ along, hoping that something miraculous and extraordinary will happen that completely changes me and thrusts me into the life of a Christian minister ‘super-hero’. But, obviously that extraordinary phenomenon is not happening... The only problem is that the flame of passion within me for Christian perfection has died.”

(Feb. 1995)

By March, I was “ready to LEAVE this place.” I was failing my two morning classes since I couldn’t wake up in time because I was working so late at night to pay the school bill so I could take those classes. I was reading the Bible so much for school that I quit reading it for myself.
“The other night, as I walked home from work just after midnight, I prayed to God, trying to piece my life together. I thought of all my memories, all my experiences, all my pain, all my joy... and I asked Him, ‘What does all this mean?’ I’m still waiting for the answer.”

(March 1995)

Feeling close to falling apart — because God still refused to interact with my life — and unable to cope with that, I started sneaking drinks of Scotch. Ironically, it had the effect of helping me get to sleep quickly and easily, which helped me to start waking up earlier and feeling better in the mornings. Of course, I felt guilty about this too. I felt guilty about being attracted to the woman I’d dated all year and was by then engaged to marry. And, as our relationship fell apart — it lasted rockily until September 1995 — that blinded me to the cracks in my life and in my faith. Perhaps the entire relationship had been masking my troubles.

I went the next couple of years thinking I was broken-hearted over her — which was surely part of it — and not realizing what else I had lost in the meantime. In hindsight, it is very clear to me that what I had truly lost was my devout faith in God, and that I didn’t realize this sooner because I misidentified the source of my pain.

• An Aside On Money And The Ministry

Before going to Bible college — which was noticeably more expensive than a state college would have been at that time — I did not worry about how much it would cost. I was convinced that if it was truly God’s will for me, then God would make a way. This was not a theology of my own invention; it had been drilled into me from childhood and was consistent with the teachings of the Bible, not the least of which was God supplying the children of Israel with food during their 40-year trek in the “wilderness”. Of course, I worked, as mentioned above, and I worked hard. While I occasionally made frivolous purchases, by far the majority of my earnings went to pay my school bill (after subtracting income taxes and 20% tithes).

But it simply wasn’t quite enough. And I noticed it wasn’t just me. All over campus, the people who had no trouble paying their school bills were the people whose parents were paying for it. Some came from big churches with scholarship funds that covered Bible college. It was completely unrelated to how fervently anyone prayed, or to how pious or holy they were in their personal lives.

I further noticed that real-world rules held true when looking for employment in the ministry after college. Friends ahead of me graduated and either went into the ministry or got “real world jobs”. The difference appeared to be the same differences that would have applied at a secular school. The ones who got good jobs in the ministry (youth pastors, associate pastors, missionaries, etc.) were often the people with good networking skills, socially active, or connected through family somehow, while the people who became managers at McDonald’s or line workers at factories were like me — unconnected, socially inept, etc. Again, it was apparently unrelated to any level of devotion to God or the ministry, any self-control, any amount of prayer.

It was disillusioning, to say the least.

Restrained By Fear

What took me so long to fully examine these doubts and questions?

There is very little disagreement on what gets you to Heaven: faith — and doubt is the opposite of faith.
First and foremost, I feared Hell — eternal torment. The Bible is clear that it’s one of only two places you will eventually arrive. There is disagreement about what actually gets you to Hell, but there is very little disagreement in scripture on what gets you to Heaven: faith — and doubt is the opposite of faith.

“Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him”, says Hebrews 11:6. Impossible is a pretty strong word. I was afraid to admit I already didn’t believe “he rewards those who earnestly seek him”, and couldn’t consider not believing in him at all — because “whoever does not believe stands condemned already” (John 3:18). “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). I felt that I couldn’t even ask the question without cutting the thread that held me suspended over the Lake of Fire.

I couldn’t even ask the question without cutting the thread that held me suspended over the Lake of Fire.
So I sometimes prayed, hot tears dripping from my jaws as I clasped my hands so tightly they bled, asking for God’s help to get back, to avoid this eternal punishment for being human. Was there something extraordinary He required of me, some great sacrifice I could make, that would open the channels of dialog between Him and me?

Though various groups have different views on how easy it is to go to Hell, especially after salvation, my particular denomination leaned toward the “it’s pretty easy” side of the argument, with plenty of scripture to back this up.

(In retrospect, incorporating the fear of eternal punishment into a religion seems like a good idea, if you’re going to create one from scratch. At least it worked on me — for a time.)

Secondly, I feared being wrong. The world was a wide-open and scary place without the God I had known all my life. Even a momentary consideration of this felt like finding out that gravity wasn’t real and I had just been sticking to the ground by luck all this time. I worried that if I put all my doubts and concerns on the table and examined them, that I wouldn’t come up with enough to believe in.

The Bible Wasn’t Helping

Deeper study of the Bible didn’t help either. At every turn there were contradictions, gaping holes, and unanswered (or poorly answered) questions — not to mention increasingly glaring problems with historicity. These became more problematic for me when the answers were always “well, we think...” or “the church has been arguing that one for 2,000 years.” I had gone to Bible college partly hoping to answer some of those questions.

How or why could an almighty, all-knowing deity inspire every word of the entire Book yet not make it clear enough for scholars and theologians to agree upon major issues? I didn’t learn until 2017 that this criticism of religion is called “The Problem Of Instructions” or “The Problem Of Clear Instructions”. I realized how easy it would have been to write a better Bible. The clearest instructions in the Bible are those for building the tabernacle and for proper cleaning procedures.

For a time, I assumed that humans were the problem — we must have added so much doctrine on top of the Bible that we were being blinded. I tried reading it without any assumptions — impossible, of course, but that led me to even more questions, and therefore more doubts.

(On another page, I’ve discussed this more fully.)

Hard Times

Without question, the most difficult part of my journey was right after Bible college. Most of the difficulty was emotional and financial, which interfered with any thinking I attempted during this time.

I was heartbroken over the end of my relationship, knowing it was (mostly) my fault. I worked manual labor jobs to make ends meet. My career hopes were increasingly unrealistic. I was lonely as I searched for new friends.

My belief in God was still intact, with my only doubts being about the direction of my own life and why God wasn’t interacting with me.
My belief in God was still intact, with my only doubts being about the direction of my own life and why God wasn’t interacting with me. I originally intended to return to college as soon as my bill was paid. But when, a few months after leaving, I went back for a visit, the whole town felt like a piece of my past instead of something I was returning to. It was full of ghosts and memories instead of hope for the future. I realized I had already, subconsciously, made the decision to not return, but didn’t have the courage to tell anyone.

At the age of 23, I lived as an unsupervised adult for the first time, paying rent and other bills, being responsible to no one except myself.

I attended church for a time and found myself bashing the preachers in my notes: “This man has murdered the art of sermonizing”, for example. I had just spent the past four years hearing the best preachers in the world five days a week; I realized it would be difficult to just sit in a normal church. I knew more than they did about the Bible, about preaching, about theology... I began to notice the sheer amount of storytelling and doctrinal assertions that didn’t match up with the Bible. About one preacher, I wrote: “Steve Martin must’ve studied this guy before making ‘Leap of Faith’.”

At one youth service at the church my parents attended, I wrote in my sermon notes that “my spirit does not bear witness”, which is a Christianized way of saying I couldn’t agree with the methods, which looked like emotional manipulation to me. “I’m getting sick at my stomach”, I added. I considered writing to headquarters (of the denomination) about it, but began to realize I’d been seeing these same emotional manipulation tactics my entire life. A few weeks later (1995.07.16), I wrote:
“It seems to me that we as a church have fully departed from the truth of God’s Word. We act as if other churches are apostate when we are no better. Our songs are emphasizing different truths than scripture. We emphasize the music and its sound rather than the worship of God. Our preaching is for acclaim and notoriety rather than to proclaim the poignant propositions of life-changing words of God. What can one do alone to change this sickening trend?”
This eventually led me to notice that all Christian denominations and individual believers cherry-pick the parts of scripture they want to follow, and somehow dismiss or ignore the rest. And that realization eventually led me to notice that it would be impossible to fully follow the Bible, since it doesn’t always agree with itself. It further finally sank in to me how few Christians actually knew the Bible. I kept running into people who spouted nonsense that they claimed was from the Bible — if you pressed them, they would admit to never having read it.

At the same time I felt broken about it — because God still hadn’t spoken to me, directed me, answered my prayers. But he seemed to be speaking to, or working through (at least some of) these preachers. Like a walkie-talkie without batteries, I was sure the problem was somewhere inside me.

I could not find the answer to the question: What is keeping me from connecting with God?
Instead of examining my own belief and comparing it to reality, as I should have, I turned my critical eye to the church, writing (in my journal) scathing critiques of services, songs, preachers. I also excoriated myself for the inability to live up to my own standards. I visited several churches, continued to pray and study the Bible, “trying to see if God would jump out and grab me, but nothing happened.” I could not find the answer to the question: What is keeping me from connecting with God?

I refused to consider the possibility that God simply didn’t exist, which from Occam’s razor would be the most reasonable place to start. It would fit the facts and easily explain my experiences.

In 1997, I wrote about the previous two years, describing a battle between “my mind”, “my will”, “my heart”, and “desire” about “ridding myself of the delusion” of religion (not God though), and how guilt and fear were plaguing me. I wanted to think about my life and the universe rationally, but could not. Apparently I made a snap decision (and in retrospect a questionable one) to do “things that I knew were wrong, just to cauterize my conscience... After a while, my feelings of guilt began to ease”. I further described this process a few years later in the first stanza of a poem, Waiting For Beyond.

From my letters and journals, it’s clear that it wasn’t until the guilt eased that I was finally able to rationally examine my beliefs and my doubts. In mid-1997, I was “unsure of life, the universe, and everything” and began describing myself (in private) as “The Lone, Questioning Man”.

Seeing Christianity As A Rigged Game

By 1998, I finally revealed my secret struggle to a few people, mostly in letters. Though I asserted “there must be a Being so much higher than ourselves”, I was “suspicious” of the rest.

It was unfair of God to set up such a rigged game.
When I re-examined the foundational premise of Christianity — that we all have innate sin deserving of Hellfire (even if you never actually do anything wrong!) and can only be saved by God’s grace, through faith — it seemed unfair. It was unfair of God to set up such a rigged game, a game that I begin with negative points and can only recover if the captain of the other team (who is also the referee, umpire and rule-writer) shows mercy. It’s not like an underdog in a basketball game, where you still actually have a chance. This is a zero-chance thing.

If a deity was fair (and I believed it must be), then that part of Christianity must not be true. Think about it:

According to the Bible: God created humans with the ability to sin and placed the first temptation right in front of them. The first sin was to acquire knowledge. Because of that sin by two people, God held every human guilty. Not long after, he destroyed most of humanity for sinning. Then he impregnated a virgin with himself as her child so that he could be killed as a sacrifice to himself because of a rule he made about sacrifices so people could be saved from the sin he gave them in the first place. And if this doesn’t make sense to you, he’ll burn you forever.

It was realizing this, and thinking about it clearly that — finally — set me on the right path. Either I had to believe life was set up unfairly, rules were impossible to follow (and changed over time), and the only way out was the symbolic “blood of Christ” (a reference to ancient animal-sacrifice rituals), or... Or I would have to not believe that.

Every time these thoughts entered my head, of course, I still felt guilt. And the fear of Hell was still strong. It was also confusing and painful.

God would not intentionally withhold evidence from me and expect me to believe anyway.
Still, I stubbornly insisted that God must be better than that. He wouldn’t send me to Hell just for thinking about it. It was a big logical leap from there to the next step, but I made it somehow: God would not intentionally withhold evidence from me and expect me to believe anyway. If (and I often did say “if” by the late ‘90s) he existed, he would be patient with my attempts to think it through. It was a big relief to finally convince myself of this, and it eventually allowed me to inject reason/logic into the conversation.

Wavering And Wondering

You can’t go from there to immediately disbelieving in any God at all, at least I couldn’t. I’d spent too many years taking Him for granted. My mind was set up to assume that the universe — and Life — could only exist because of a Maker.

So, for years I believed that there must be a god, but that the Bible — because of its failure to match up with reality — did not contain accurate descriptions of it. The original truth had been distorted by hundreds of generations of oral retelling. This also explained, for me, the presence of the plethora of viewpoints in ancient religions. Perhaps all of them had originated from the same kernel of truth in human history.

During this extended period, my faith stayed at that stage. But the graph’s line would still be jagged — there were days (as early as 1999) when I came close to shrugging off theism entirely. For example, in 2003, I wrote in my journal:
“Purportedly, answers are waiting for us after the Judgment Day, but I also fear that this is not so. I fear, deep in my spirit, that this ‘Judgment Day’ is merely an affectation of tight-assed, over-moralized religious nuts, looking for a way to control disruption in ancient societies.

As my agnosticism turns to atheism, any viable proof of ‘God’s’ existence washes over me as so many trite words which I have spoken before...

Maybe ‘god’ made this world, and started the great chain of life, and then moved on to a more exciting project, a project of which I cannot conceive in my smallness...

Do not hate me for my doubt.”
And there were days (as late as 2005) when I considered giving up this emotional, spiritual, and increasingly intellectual struggle and just going back to church and embracing it all over again.
“The ancient part of me, the part that believed in the Christ of the Bible, thinks I should sink back into that lifestyle, submit to the psuedo-religious culture in which I’m immersed.”


Everything in my psyche wanted this “return”. My brain was organized for that to happen and had been trained that way for decades. I knew all the songs, most of the scriptures, and all the right phrases. Even after years away, I knew I could fall right back into rhythm. And I was tired of being alone with my thoughts. It would be comforting. Further, I was more than 30 years old by this point, and starting to wonder whether I would ever have a family — a wife and children. In a mostly Christian town in a mostly Christian state in a mostly Christian nation, I realized how difficult it would be to find a wife if I was honest about my doubts. That alone was almost enough to get me back to church.

“Still, I feel deep down that would be just another form of giving up... I would be trying to force myself to believe in a God that I don’t really believe in, just to gain some kind of emotional solace...”
I knew that it would only be a decision to participate in religion, rather than believing in what I had once believed. Any return would therefore be on different terms than my previous religious activity. I would be acting a part, having decided to act the part for the rest of my life — much like gay people over the centuries acted straight so as to avoid the ostracization that would occur if their true thoughts were known. It would be a once-and-forever thing if I went back — I didn’t have the energy to continue vacillating, wondering, and doubting.

And I knew that it would be somewhat hollow. I wouldn’t be able to fool myself. Deep down I would still harbor doubts.

I realized I still wanted to struggle onward toward a more lucid reality. I didn’t want my return to be just “fire insurance” (to avoid Hell) or to enlarge my circle of friends; I wanted it to be real. I was still waiting for that sign I had requested at the age of 17, something that would be unassailable, undoubtedly from Him.

Finding A New Paradigm

Once it sank in for a few years that I’d effectively discarded the Bible as the infallible Word of God, I realized that things were suddenly more relative. For the first time, the idea of God wasn’t set in stone; I could think about Him without every thought being wrong. What were His characteristics, if not the incorrect ones in the Bible? Is he fair? Yes, if He’s all-powerful, then he should be fair. Should he be kind? Why not?

I almost got trapped in the circle of argument: “but He’s so beyond us that His standards of fairness and kindness might be so different from our own...” But I brought myself back to Earth. That’s unthinkable, simply because I can’t conceive of ideas of fairness or kindness that go against every standard of kindness and fairness known to me. (And if God existed, of course, he was the originator of these standards.)

Who says he’s even interested in what happens on this tiny planet in a forgotten corner of the galaxy?
But the assumptions of omnipotence and omniscience brought up new questions: Who says he’s all-powerful? Or all-knowing? Who says he’s even interested in what happens on this tiny planet in a forgotten corner of the galaxy?

If not the Bible, then from whence came my ideas about God? Was there a book? Was it laid out somewhere in black and white, in an unconfusing way? I tried all kinds. I read books about Buddhism and Hinduism and others, mostly out of curiosity, but also wondering if there was something to it. After all, millions of people believed in those religions too. I examined the idea of reincarnation and it seemed as plausible (yet as unprovable) to me as what I had been taught all my life.

As I wrestled with these issues, it wasn’t merely an intellectual exercise, but a slow eroding of all that I’d known and believed about the entire world. I was, for the first time, applying reason to the equation rather than assumption.

Finding A New Morality

One thing that held me back for years — aside from the aforementioned fear of eternal torment, was the assumption that morality was absolute.

Theists (including myself) have long thought of this as a trump card of sorts: because they assume a god, and that this God invented right and wrong, then without a god there can be no higher absolute truth, and there can be no morality. The idea is that an atheist would — by his very nature — be an amoral, depraved, and very sad person without purpose. This didn’t stand up to careful inspection. As it turns out, people who don’t believe in gods are moral for basically the same reasons as people who do believe in gods.

(I’ve devoted a separate page to discussing that very issue.)

The Struggle To Find Meaning

Another thing that held me back was the assumption that my life should have a purpose, and the related assumption that this purpose came from God. Also, I thought, there should be a reason for life itself.

The need for meaning was one of the arguments for God’s existence I had used in earlier days: If there is no god, then all is meaningless. I thought, based on decades of being told to think this way, that my life — in fact, all lives and all of Life — was pointless without some higher power to give it purpose.

The farther I pulled away from former faith, the more strongly these ideas tugged.
The farther I pulled away from former faith, the more strongly these ideas — absolute morality and the requirement of a purpose — tugged. Maybe more than anything, they were the two most difficult assumptions to shuck from the previous paradigm — which, as it turns out, was based entirely on baseless assumptions.

I had no basis for understanding that life is beautiful without God — perhaps even more precious and surprising. There was no foundation in my mind for the idea that one can live, love, and learn for their own sakes. It was next to impossible for me to see my own life in the context that there wasn’t some giant unseen hand guiding my steps, protecting me, speaking to me — and with some end goal (Heaven) in mind. This life is tough, most of us agree, and it sure seems better if we know it’s just the very short introduction to eternal bliss.

My assumptions did not survive scrutiny.

As it turned out, I met and observed a great number of people who had little or no purpose to their lives, and almost all of them believed in God — or at least in the idea of god. I also met and observed a smaller number of people who seemed to know exactly what they were supposed to do in life — most of them believed in God too, but not all of them. In fact, I noticed each group of people had about the same ratio of believers-to-nonbelievers.

Finding or losing purpose looks more like a normal part of the maturation process and less like a result of either the intervention of an almighty God directing us all or the belief in such a God.
Over time, I watched some in the latter group (definite purpose) lose their way or change their minds, and I saw many in the former group (purposeless) seem to finally find meaning of some kind, whether it was a career, a family, art, or a cause. Either way, it looked more like a normal part of the maturation process and less like a result of either (1) the intervention of an almighty God directing us all or (2) the belief in such a God.

Also over time, I read a great deal of history. I realized that countless billions of humans have lived and died on this planet, almost all of them in abject poverty (by today’s western standards), and almost all of them without affecting the course of human history one iota. Cumulatively, through the millenia, how many millions (a good chunk of them children) died in droughts, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or plagues? Was that part of some higher purpose? Was there a meaning to these lives? How many millions only existed to become cannon fodder for invaders or to die in prison camps?

It increasingly began to seem like a mix of folly and narcissicm to assume the my life had some God-given purpose while all those billions did not.

Seen without the lens of religion, it seems the only actual “purpose” of most people was simply to produce and raise more people. Some of them, by their actions or words, made the world a better place for the rest of us, whether they realized it or not. But when studying history, I saw no evidence of a guiding hand.

Eventually, I realized that my need or desire for meaning, for a purpose, for a reason, was just that — something I either wanted or needed — and not a proof of God’s existence. This was not cause for despair, though it certainly caused me confusion — until I recognized and dispensed with the faulty assumptions.

It was then that I realized I must find my own meaning to life and make my own purpose, but that neither was guaranteed.

For more on this topic, see What Is The Purpose Of Life?

Going It Alone

Through most of this, I had no friend, no confidant with whom to share my deepest thoughts and agony. It was not an area about which I could ask my family for advice — as far as I could tell all of them still believed in a fairly specific God. And I already knew what they would say because I had said the same things to others with doubts. My friends, roommates, coworkers — almost everyone I knew, even the drunkards and drug abusers — all believed in at least the general idea of God.

None of them were educated in religion, theology, philosophy. Few of them were educated at all.

I didn’t know it then, but there were internet forums and discussion groups about atheism and other related subjects. Even if I had known, I likely would have shied away from them, still unwilling or unable to consider a godless universe.

Even in 2014, as I prepared these web pages, I trembled at the backlash* I expected from many people I know. Most of them still believe Psalm 14:1:
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.”
So, for the most part, I kept these thoughts to myself. I worked, and then came home. At home, I wrote.

I finally found one person with whom I felt completely comfortable sharing my struggle honestly. She was far away. We only communicated via written correspondence. This helped, tremendously. Eventually I grew comfortable sharing the same thoughts with one other person, also far removed, and again only through the mail.

* After a month, the “backlash” failed to materialize. I’m glad I was wrong. Click here to read some of the immediate responses I received from friends and family members. However, many, many of them did not respond at all, which gives me cause to wonder what they will say when I next see them in person.

Another Paradigm Shift, Through Writing Sci-Fi

My first paradigm shift (above) took me from believing in God based on the Bible to believing in a god not based on the Bible. Part of that process came from writing fiction, and that a later second paradigm shift was even more greatly due to my process of writing.

While still in Bible college in the early 1990s, I wrote a new draft of “Wesley’s Story” (working title), a story I had begun before college. Following is the final paragragh of Chapter 1 of “Draft 5”:
“There were a few written laws, drawn up by Jef’s staff, and tempered by Winston’s wisdom. Basically, everyone was required to help a neighbor in need; defend at all costs the peace of the little nation; help in their own way to provide for the needs of the group; and lastly, to study the Holy Scriptures and follow God’s laws therein. Everything considered, the tiny country was fairly successful, and those who lived within its borders were totally devoted to its leaders, and every one of them were at peace with one another.”
When I wrote this, circa 1993, it made perfect sense to me that a nation following “God’s laws” in the Bible would lead to a peaceful, optimal society. I thought this because I had been taught it by church and family during childhood. A few years later, I worked on a now-gone “Draft 6” of the same story. I thought it would be worthwhile to list a few of these biblical laws for the uninformed reader. I thought I would begin with the “10 Commandments”. I discovered that there were not ten commandments in the Old Testament, but hundreds, something I should have known already, having read the Bible many times.

I could not bring myself to write into my story that the characters had reverted to animal sacrifices.
I struggled. I did not want the fictional society in my story to follow all of the laws found in the Bible. For example, killing people who worked on the Sabbath wouldn’t make sense in my story. There are other nonsensical commandments too, including how to properly buy and sell slaves, dietary laws, not using mixed fabrics, precise instructions for building and maintaining the temple, and for offering animal sacrifices. I could not bring myself to write into my story that the characters had reverted to animal sacrifices (the story was set in the not-too-distant future, after a societal collapse). I began to question myself on this: “Why not?” At first, my answer was the typically Christian answer: “because of the New Testament”, because Christ was the ultimate sacrifice for us, etc. But I had to back up and question why animal sacrifices were ordered in the first place, if God knew all along that he had an “ultimate sacrifice” in store that would wipe all sin from everyone. Since God decided not to tell the Israelites about Christ, he initiated a wholesale slaughter of millions of animals over the centuries, all to cover sins that were already (from God’s perspective) covered by the future blood of Christ.

Why, in the first place, did God decide that the answer for sin was shedding blood?
This line of questioning — all due to one line in a story I never finished (despite going through at least nine drafts) — led me to unanswerable questions: (1) Is God really all-knowing — including the future? (2) If so, why did he keep the perfect answer — Christ — a secret for so many generations? (3) Why, in the first place, did God decide that the answer for sin was shedding blood? I had never, in all my years of study and instruction at Bible college, come across the answer for this third question (the other two were usually answered “yes” and “mysterious ways”). There was no reasonable explanation why God would have set up the universe to require a blood offering, the death of an innocent creature or person, as a way to cover sin or make things right.

And thus, along with other thoughts already mentioned, writing fiction helped along that first paradigm shift.

The second paradigm shift came when I worked on a few science fiction novels a few years later, none of them ever published. My usual method of writing sci-fi was to start with a premise and a few characters, and then see where they took me. I rarely had an end-point in mind.

While I worked on “The Last Rock Band”, in an apartment in Jacksonville, Ark.
Self-portrait, circa 2000.
This was the case with “Prichard’s Choice”, on which I worked in the late 1990s and early ‘00s. The premise was that robots had become intelligent, self-aware, and fully humanoid — indistinguishable at first glance from actual humans. When writing dialog between Captain Prichard and his crew of robots, I had to put myself in the mindset of an entity who had been programmed with basic functionality, information about the universe, and the ability to reason. Unlike the human in the conversation, the robot had not been raised to believe in — or wonder about — God. It only had information and reasoning skills. What if that’s all humans had, instead of years of indoctrination?

One robot in particular, named Jewel, asserts to Prichard that humanity never figured out its purpose, while the robots had clearly been built to serve humanity. Prichard mentions religion, that it asserted man’s purpose was to serve God. Jewel ignores this because the difference is obvious — robots were clearly built by humans and can currently see humans and physically serve them, whereas humans don’t even know whether God exists and therefore cannot serve him. She is forced to conclude that humanity’s purpose is to reproduce. When Prichard asked for the reason, she changed the subject — because I as an author had run out of ideas.

In “The Last Rock Band”, which dealt primarily with a group of future youngsters rediscovering the energy and angst of rock ‘n’ roll, somehow religion crept in again. This time it was the “New Reformation” spreading through the colonized planets. People who had never heard of religion were encouraged (by law) to take it up. Again, I was forced as a writer to think from the viewpoint of someone (this time a human) who had never considered deity before. He had to admit that the missionaries were nice enough people, but their ideas didn’t make sense to him.

The subject came up again in Robber Baron. Some characters believed in a god of sorts and others didn’t, though most of the conversations dealt with morality rather than belief. It was clear my mind was dealing with these subjects even when I didn’t intend to.

As highly improbable as this storyline was, to me it was more plausible than early religious legends were.
Then, in 2003, I came up with Gennifer Orphala Daniels, the primary character in a short story, working title: “G.O.D. Was A Teenage Girl” (G.O.D. are the initials of the girl’s name.) She lived 40,000 years in our future, with every conceivable type of technology. On a lark, she stole a time machine, some planet-builders, and cloning machines. You can guess, but I’ll tell you: she went back in time, built the solar system, populated it with plants and animals, and then added humans. Fearing she would get in trouble, she hid her true identity from these humans, but gave them just enough information to survive. She checked in on them from time to time, occasionally using her technology to intervene or impress. She was flattered by their awe of her and humored by their ignorant discussions about her. Frustrated by some of what she saw, she occasionally grew angry and “punished” the disobedient humans, but as the population grew, she was increasingly unable to see everything or solve every problem. As highly improbable as this storyline was, to me it was more plausible than early religious legends (like the Bible) were. (Note: In a later draft, there was no time machine; she just built a world in the future, but it turned out that time was circular.)

In 2004, I worked on a story about a genetically-engineered police officer in the near future. Unlike most humans, she knew she had been grown in a lab — there was paperwork to prove it. Her musings about the supernatural were similar to mine.
“And if an angel, or demon, or ghost, or spirit, or god appeared to me to explain the intricacies of life beyond this one, how would I know that that apparition was not merely a product of my imagination, trying to convince me of something I want to believe? I cannot tell you that.”
Each time, I had invented the characters without really thinking about where the story would go, and tried to develop the plot organically, based on what these characters would do if they were real people and based on the premise of each story. And each time, I was forced to deal with questions that I had feared tackling on my own — because the character had to deal with them.

This process, though I didn’t realize it at the time, is what caused my second major paradigm shift, from believing in a god not based on the Bible to acknowledging that a godless universe was possible.

Eight Years At Stage 4-6

I finally arrived at “There is probably a god” as my default position in my early 30s — 2005.

My logic was thus: I am not equipped to understand the world or behave in it without assuming some kind of metaphysical power or being. For me, it was the only explanation for the universe, and for the origin of life. But I had no further logic or reason with which to flesh out this belief. So I didn’t embellish it. Just: “There is probably a god.”

And I stuck there for years. I didn’t think about it much during this time.

Some people have said they became fully convinced of God when they witnessed childbirth. It didn’t work that way for me. My only thought was: surely an all-knowing creator could have thought of a better way to bring my child into the world.

I hadn’t quit writing, though my poetry dried up almost entirely during this time, as did my fiction-writing. I switched from writing letters to email and online comment forms for correspondence with friends and family. My journal became my blog, which was public and therefore not the best place to hash out deeply felt beliefs or doubts. So there is almost zero evidence during this eight-year period (2005-2013) of what I was thinking.

When analyzing this time period in hindsight, it is clear that I moved from “there is probably a god” to “uncertain, likely invented by man”, and then to not really having an opinion.

Last Paradigm Shift, From Science

My last major paradigm shift came while doing research for politically-oriented entries for my second blog, Verily I Say Unto Thee. I noticed that — almost without exception — the people who made the most sense, had the most information, and expressed the least amount of vitriol, were either scientists or people in the “I’m with science” camp.

On the other side of nearly every argument were people who began with an assumption and then had to force every other fact into that mold.

The point of science is to begin with as few underlying assumptions as possible, because underlying assumptions derail the process and block clear thinking.
I saw incredible examples of this while researching global warming. One group started with the position: this subject is interesting, so I’ll study it. That is the scientific mindset. Information is gathered. Observations are made. Hypotheses arise. Experiments are conducted to prove wrong those hypotheses. The point is to begin with as few underlying assumptions as possible, because underlying assumptions derail the process and block clear thinking.

Whereas the other group, non-scientists, nearly always begin with underlying assumptions: the Earth isn’t warming, warming is okay, global warming is happening but isn’t caused by humans, the economy is too important (and apparently fragile) to disrupt by changing our energy sources, scientists are in a big conspiracy, and so on. And they would scrape together enough facts to make their assumption seem plausible.

This was true on any number of subjects. One group starts with a question, a thirst for knowledge and understanding, while the other group starts with assumptions. Once I made that realization, it was easy to notice that the latter almost always tended to be religious, while the former was much less so — often atheists or agnostics.

The religious folk were fine with science unless it contradicted their deeply held personal beliefs.
The religious folk were fine with science unless it contradicted their deeply held personal beliefs. And I realized I had once been that way too (see my 1989 poem The Evolutionists as an ad hominem example). The religious camp, also almost without exception, had a tendency to get very nasty very quickly, in any discussion topic where science or facts were brought up.

Thinking back over my life, I had always tended to embrace the no-assumptions ideology except when it came to God. For example, when choosing a car and someone would say Chevrolets were more reliable than Fords, I would want to know whether there were numbers backing it up or if it was just a feeling they had. When someone told me vinyl records sounded better than compact discs, I wondered about it, and listened to them side-by-side (it wasn’t true).

I had always rejected superstition, astrology, luck, etc., because there was no rational basis for believing in any of them. This reminded me of the so-called “rational” proofs, or arguments, for the existence of God, so I began going back over them — looking for underlying assumptions. Are you ready? Every one of them had an underlying assumption.

It makes sense to collect data and observe reality.
If you and I both assume that your house is larger than mine, then I can “prove” it to you with no effort whatsoever. But if we disagree, then the solution is to measure our houses and compare the information. But what if I measured both houses and found mine was larger, and you refused to agree with me because of your prior assumption that yours was larger. “I see your numbers, and I watched you do the measurements and math, but I will choose not to believe it.” Most of us would raise eyebrows at that statement. It makes sense to collect data and observe reality.

Further, I realized that all throughout my life, I had doubted any claim that seemed to have no basis in evidence. Except for God and the Bible. This was something of an epiphany for me, more than 20 years late. I began to subject supernatural claims to the same standard of evidence that I had always applied to everything else.

It didn’t take long before I (privately) labeled myself an “agnostic”. And that’s when I decided to start writing this set of web pages. From there, I just had to learn a few definitions to begin calling myself an “agnostic atheist”.

This is the updated version of this page. To see the earliest available version, click here. The full list of edits is here (.txt file).

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