Evolution, Atheism, and Gender Dysphoria: A Few of God’s Favorite Things

How the “creationism vs. evolutionary biology” debate robbed me of Christianity, helped me transition, and caused me to vaguely like the idea of god again

A Young, Eager, and Cautious Young-Earth Creationist

When I was a kid the church told me not to read science textbooks because they would turn me away from god. One of my parents suggested that I asked too many questions, implying that god didn’t have the answers. I wanted to know the why behind everything. I wasn’t so much interested in whether hell existed but how it did. I wanted to know how such a location could exist within a physical universe. What were the mechanics of its existence like? How could a lake burn? Was it underground? If so, was it inside the Earth’s core? I wanted proof.

My mom encouraged me to find answers to most of my questions. But our circle of Christianity wasn’t so sure about evolution and biology yet. Accordingly, she gave me a redacted encyclopedia as a gift. All the pages about the beginning of the universe, space, and biology were blacked out. Once I finished reading about automobiles and automation, I studied human anatomy and physiology. When I had finished those, I used a flash-light to look through the Sharpie’d pages for that hidden knowledge.

Naturally, questions of science are the ones to which I most wanted answers. Answers about the beginning of time and how the universe came about were unavailable to me at home. So I searched elsewhere. My grandfather loved space. He and I would talk about the big bang theory and stars (Trek and Wars) with him while we worked in his wood shop. He’s the one who first told me about Stephen Hawking. He kept a copy of A Brief History of Time in his workshop. Our church told me it was a satanic book, so I kept a watchful but interested eye on it.

My mom home-schooled us when I was younger. To provide us with a well-rounded education, she took us on many field trips. We attended science exhibits, plays, and conferences. This was one of those precious benefits of home schooling. On one occasion I brought home pamphlets of information about dinosaurs, the age of the universe, and god’s role in it all. There was a tall, old man with glasses standing in a empty auditorium telling us the story of the stars. He said that the stars were created about 5,500 years ago. That they were pin holes in the firmament above us, allowing god’s glory to shine through.

A colored-in version of the Flammarion engraving called “Universum” depicting the firmament on Wikimedia

Young-Earth Creationists (Creationist-Christians who argue that the earth is less than 6,000 years old) are incredibly adept at making god out of molehills. The curriculum we used explained that Satan buried fake dinosaur bones. He did this to trick scientists into believing that the earth was old — which was apparently not only an incorrect belief, but a sin. I collected drawings of Jesus riding the backs of dinosaurs. I received my first taste of Hebrew vocabulary as I carefully memorized “dinosaur” words like behemoth and leviathan.

You would be disappointed to learn that the entirety of my Bryan College science education was founded on these same tricks. I prepared for Christian college from the beginning. Once I moved from home school to private school, my future seemed determined. I obsessed over the the bible because it had the answers. Or so I was told. I started teaching myself Greek. I became the kid who, in every class, would raise my hand and say “The Bible has something to say about that.”

I couldn’t figure out why people doubted in god. After all, all the answers were clear. Provided you know the proper proof texts, language nuance, and cultural background. What I saw then as faithfulness, I now recognize as privilege. The privilege that exists in being a middle class, private-schooled, white teenage boy with no struggles. I never doubted God because I didn’t have a reason to. I started having trouble finding answers to my questions when my parents divorced. It was the small crack in my near-perfect life that welcomed doubt.

An Older, Existentializing, Cranky Old-Earth Creationist

In high school we memorized the correct answers to the hard questions. Questions like where do babies go if they die and under what circumstances should women have abortions were weekly topics in bible class. College provided a diversity of experiences, and with them, a diversity of answers. Bryan College emphasized the importance of questioning everything. So much so, that I would have never become an atheist had it not been for this encouragement to ask questions. The faculty pushed the students to question everything. Trusting, of course, that we’d find their Board-approved answers.

A few of my professors were even comfortable saying “I don’t know.” Often. Their uncertainty drove me further outward in my search. It was okay to not know the answer. I had the freedom to entertain any number of answers as long as I could prove that I would settle on one eventually. I decided to major in biblical studies. Today I tell my friends that it was for the linguistic and language content. That’s partially true, but my reasoning was different then. Inside the bible was the only place I knew to look for answers. I committed to knowing it inside and out. My path only opened up more questions. The complexity of Greek and Hebrew don’t help. The sins of the Church and the circular reasoning of biblical theology only further complicate the answers.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

My loss of faith arrived exponentially.

My limited understanding of sexuality and equality among people caved first.

Sexuality and gender was the first question to which I couldn’t find an answer. Our Hebrew professor offered the occasional course called Bible and Sexuality. It was an open-ended, discussion-driven course. It was immediately clear that most of the students (like me) espoused cisnormative, heteronormative, allosexualnormative, complementarian views. Our understanding of sexuality was wholly explained by “God said Adam and Even, not Adam and Steve.” Most of our discussions danced around rules for men and women. Should women be police officers? Is oral sex allowed within marriage? And most important: if gay people could get married. I felt a shift within me. I couldn’t say during my time at Bryan, but even then I felt discomfort labeling homosexuality a sin.

I was probably the only self-identified feminist among the biblical studies majors that year. Thanks to Rachel Held Evans (an alum of Bryan College), I knew I’d be in good company when I graduated. In class I learned the word patriarchy for the first time. Once you feel it creep into every cranny in life, you can’t stop seeing it. I felt it in our all-men biblical studies faculty. I witness weigh on the one woman bible major (counting myself as male then) who was constantly questioned why she was in that major. It made no sense to me that people who are created equal by God would be given different and subservient roles in the world. It infuriated me that a more-educated, more articulated woman could be de-staged by any random “I had one bible class” man who took the chapel stage. I started to think that the bible didn’t have all the answers.

This left my personal theology spinning, hopping from one denomination to another.

Systematic theology fell soon after. I didn’t trust it. When my friend (and eventual best man) publicly disagreed with our theology professor about the nature of forgiveness, I became more persistent in my own “contrarian” views. It was then that I realized Systematic Theology was a few old pastors forcing their out-of-date and harmful thinking onto younger generations. It was then that I labeled myself a “Biblical Theology” kind-of student. I commited to finding my answers only in the bible.

Bu with no foundational theology, my view of the bible plummeted.

Once you see the bible as nothing more than a game of historical telephone, it becomes uninteresting. When I learned that King James I authorized his name into the bible (instead of the Book of Jacob, we now get James), I became consciously aware of my growing distrust for it. I began to hate the bible when it turned out to be nothing more than cobbled-together fan fiction from first century anti-Roman, Yahweh-obsessed zealots. Today I’m trying to like it again, but for those reasons.

Now that the only source of true answers was gone, I had nowhere to turn to but the outside world.

Biology was the last straw. Somehow, in my mind, I could handle various disagreeing theologies. After all, we all still believed in the same God so to speak. But biology made me nervous. It was one of the forbidden topics of my home-schooled youth. I sensed that learning about evolutionary biology would be the beginning of the end of my faith.

As fate would have it, my junior year became the beginning. I decided to test out of Introduction to Biology so I could maintain my intended graduation date. Over the winter break I devoured a standard “secular” Introduction to Biology textbook. Inside were the words redacted from my elementary encyclopedia. It’s no wonder my mom hid this information from me. Evolution sang to me the beautiful and tragic story of life from nothing without god.

A Theoretically Excited Theological Evolutionist

Photo by Robert Koorenny on Unsplash

As I was finishing my junior year at Bryan, the typical mid-April “what are you doing for the summer question” swept the campus. All semester I had experienced existential angst (a now common theme in my life). I became the Lead RA in my dorm. I started writing my senior thesis. The very delicate foundation of my faith (that I could trust god for the answers I needed) had thinned. If life, the universe, and everything could exist without god why was I holding on to god still? Something made it difficult to let go. One professor called it the Holy Spirit. A therapist suggested anxiety. But I knew that it was guilt. I was holding on to god because I had no identity outside of him. To be left without god left me alone. And I was terrified of being alone.

I felt that at any moment something would come along and wreck my faith. All I needed was a few homophobic chapel speakers. Check. Or some racist propaganda peddled around campus. Check. Or public support of Ken Hamm. Check. Or my favorite Old Testament professor arrested with intent to solicit a minor — and having the college cover up the story. Check. I no longer cared if there was a hell. I didn’t care for scientific proof of God because I didn’t need him anymore. The world was enough proof that he didn’t exist.

An Agonizing, Almost Agnostic Atheist

Photo by Maddie Wilkinson on Instagram

The guilt that surfaced from thinking these thoughts pushed me to give god one more chance. I planned to work again at the christian horseback riding camp I counseled before. The summer before was a spiritual awakening for me. God had ignited me to share the gospel, become vegetarian, and stand confident in my calling in life. I was to preach and teach the bible in every language. If anything could convince me to believe in god again, it was this camp.

As doubt would have it, I stashed away some books alongside my duct-taped ESV bible. Through The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins made me cry. Reading about the evolution of eyes was the most beautiful creation story I had heard. A few pages into A Brief History of Time and I finally understood why my granddad wouldn’t stop talking about Hawking. Hitchens’ God is Not Great made me confident in my lack of faith, and Harris’* The End of Faith convinced me to finish it.

A professor told me that walking the thin-line of Theological Evolution was dangerous. He was right. I told myself that the only thing holding me to god was the meta-narrative (the Story of all stories). I believed that a universe with god was a better story ( à la Life of Pi), but once I could find a better story than god’s, I’d move on.

I devoured those books under the covers while my campers slept. I read in the bathroom on lunch bre9aks. I rehearsed the information while on horseback in the woods. I started fumbling while I lead worship for the campers each night. On one last Thursday night, as the camp director was leading the campers through the Sinners’ Prayer, I cried. These kids were about to be deceived just like I had been. That evening I wrote the words I think I’m an atheist in my journal.

Photo by Maddie Wilkinson just like 2 seconds ago just for this post

I faked my way through senior year. I wrote a thesis arguing for the existence of God from a linguistic perspective (it’s full of holes). I fell in love with someone for the first time. I started thinking about our future more than I thought about hapax legomenon. I knew that once I graduated, I’d be free to be free of god.

I filled our road trips to Ohio with debates between atheists and christians. I joined atheist message boards. I was terrified. I didn’t know how to live in a world that didn’t belong to god. To counteract this fear I did the one thing I knew how to do. I got a job as a middle and high school bible teacher in a very small private school in Ohio.

A New Creation Making Myself New

Photo by Jenny Smith on Unsplash

I lived two lives. In one, I taught students how to defend their faith and read the bible. In another, I taught myself how to dismantle those very arguments. I was not a great teacher. A combination of this crises and my lack of formal teacher training made it difficult. I had no sense of discipline or classroom management. On the rare occasion that my students and I had a moment, I talked about the things I wished my bible teachers taught.

I shared with them the beautiful story of evolution through Creation, Fall, Redemption. We spoke honestly about the horrible lives lived by the kings of the Old Testament. I encouraged them to see debates not as topics, but as real people they’d one day meet in their life. I taught them the value of questioning even god himself (it’s okay, the bible allows it). We wrote poetry to learn about the author’s intent in the Wisdom Literature. We learned about Gilgamesh when studying Genesis. We saw the beautiful story of god’s love in all religions and worldviews.

I used this time to figure out who I was. Who was I outside of this christian narrative? Where did this physical angst come from if it couldn’t be holy spirit? I had to deal with the problems on my own. I couldn’t pray away stress, so I went to a therapist. I couldn’t wait for a new body, so I took care of myself. Since no one was going to hell anymore, I read up on all the religions I missed out on.

During all this I consumed myself with the question: who am I if my identity is no longer in Christianity? A therapist I worked with asked us the same question during a retreat. In June 2015 I was ready to meet myself. Who are you outside of Christianity, he asked us. When my mind whispered “A girl,’ I started panicking.

This freedom to pursue myself without any religious expectation allowed me to discover myself. I am convinced that had things stayed the same, I would have prayed that gender dysphoria away. Or something worse. Science gave me the gift of self-discovery. It was finally me making all things new. Science not only gave me the answers I sought, it gave me life. A biological world of intersectionality, grey areas, and spectrums revealed itself to me. I could be a woman. And more importantly, I could be me. I had the same fervor the 10 year old boy me had reading that encyclopedia. I was discovering the information about myself that Christianity had redacted. The scientific study of biology told me that I was the answer. It makes sense now that I spent so much time on the human anatomy and physiology chapters. Science had began a good work within me.

Theologically Non-Conforming

Photo by Ben Mater on Unsplash

I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I hate god now. I leaned into atheism the wrong way — the “Four Horsemen of Atheism” are vicious but effective teachers. I have seen firsthand how much evil religion can instill in the lives of children, queer people, and people of color. Religion has caused more harm than good. Corrupted views of god gave us colonialism, the slave trade, and dangerous political ideologies. I am grateful to fight against that.

But I’m starting to see the benefits of faith and belief. I’ve learned how western thought about reality is incomplete. That religious, spiritual, and mindful practices reap positive benefits to people today. If there’s a gray area that exists between belief and doubt, that’s where I am. I’m ignostic of the idea of god. And I am fascinated by everyone’s personal journey with this idea.

I see good theology in action when I witness queer Twitter rejoice in the message of affirmation. I see spiritual disciplines of mindfulness supplement (and sometimes replace) praying. Many of my classmates from Bryan would categorize me with other heretics. But that’s okay. I’ve found a queer community from that same school that celebrates us instead. Maybe I’ll start with Genesis again — after I finish the Quran, Ram Dass, and the desert mothers first. I’m no longer afraid to look for answers, because I see more and more that the answers are the same. Love god (whoever or whatever she/it is to you), and love people.

*I mention Sam Harris because I did admire him during this period of growth in my life. However, I firmly condemn him and his blatant racism and Islamaphobia today.