April 24th, 2013
I sat on a stool toward the end of the bar at Noodles & Company in the Pearl District. Having finished my mac and cheese, I stared out the window, watching passers-by as the realization took root in my mind.
I no longer believed in God.
I did what I often do, I started a list. In a new file — named g-d.md, so God wouldn’t know what I was doing — I listed the new beliefs I’d have to assume:
- When alone, I would be utterly alone.
- My mistakes would be my own.
- My successes would be my own.
- Children who died would cease to exist.
- Sundays would be free.
- Everyone in the family would think far less of me.
- I couldn’t pray; there would be nothing to pray to.
- Hope for divine intervention would cease.
- Religious experiences would be relegated to emotional experiences.
- I’d have to change my Facebook religious option.
- Church-going friends would wonder where I went wrong.
- My wife would be less than pleased.
- My sons, what would I do? Would I lie to them?
- Christmas would be different.
Reviewing each item, I became a little emptier. I wept. I wept for my younger self who would have been so angry at this heathen self. I wept for the years of doubtless faith. I wept for the pain-filled conversations I would have with my wife, my parents, and my friends. And then I stopped crying, closed my laptop, and buried my feelings.
In 2004, I began developing my feeling-burying technique as as I began to doubt the literal truth of the bible while perusing the Institute for Creation Research’s site. I was looking for some evidence I could put in my back pocket as I started college at the Art Institute of Portland. Instead, I came away smelling the pseudo-science and starting to believe in evolution — or at least Old-Earth creationism.
During and after college, I struggled with the idea that my gay friends would be denied salvation. In 2011, I stumbled upon the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So on Netflix. As I absorbed its message, I asked myself the question I’d been ignoring for so long, “if you choose your sexual orientation, why would you choose the most difficult and socially maligned option and then openly admit to it?” Less than a year later, I had lunch with my dad and our pastor, during which my pastor opened my eyes to how devout Christians of his parents’ generation used passages of the Bible to support racism. Following this conversation and a lot of reflection, I no longer believed gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks would suffer for all eternity.
As 2012 was coming to an end, my faith was shaken, but still there. I found myself relying on — and giving— the advice, “you just have to choose to believe.” In what I now identify as a last-ditch effort to cement my faith, I read the Book of Mormon. I’d had a host of good, kind, thoughtful LDS friends over the years — and still do — but had considered The Church of Christ of Latter-Day Saints a cult. In 2012, my understanding of the LDS faith was grounded by a close friend who was open to answer any and all of my questions:
Me: “Do you wear holy underwear?”
Him: They’re called temple garments.
Me: “Does temple work involve anything sexual?”
Me: “Do you get your own planet?”
Him: Probably not.
In response, I read the Book of Mormon with an open mind. I’ve never read a holy text more voraciously. As I finished, I had no burning of the bosom, no peace, no revelation. What I had was a problem.
I imagined a spectrum. To my left was a lack of faith — atheism, agnosticism, non-belief. To my right was Mormonism — modern day revelation, strict doctrine, an evolution of Christianity. And here I was in the middle, believing in immaculate conception, the literal resurrection of Christ, eternity. I found the tenets of Mormonism to be unbelievable. There was a revelation made to a man many years ago and the Truth was revealed to him to be spread to everyone? It sounded fantastical, but familiar. Where was my understanding of Truth rooted? In words written many years ago by men, which were revealed and to be spread to everyone. If I couldn’t believe in the tenets of the Mormons, how could I believe in the tenets of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism?
In the uncomfortable days that followed, a quote I’d heard from my uncle years earlier sprang to mind:
What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. —Carl Sagan, Encyclopedia Galactica
I walked out of Noodles and Co., silently considering how I had switched from wondering how I could believe in anything supernatural, but still believing the God I had grown up knowing to not believing in God, but wishing I still did so nothing would change.
My new beliefs stayed hidden. As time marched on, I learned nothing had to change. All I had to do was live quietly with my new beliefs, which were in direct conflict with my prior beliefs. Effectively, this meant I deceived my wife, family, friends, and even random acquaintances to ensure the fictional veil wouldn’t be pierced.
I allowed myself to research topics that had previously seemed verboten. I delved into Alfred Kinsey’s work and learned about Intersex characteristics, Asexuality, and Gender assignment, which led to a much richer understanding of the fluidity of the human body and our conscious experience.
I started listening and identifying with the stories shared in This American Life, The Moth, Radiolab, and other great story-driven podcasts, which led me to discover the difference between empathy and sympathy and to begin questioning every moral position I’d ever taken.
I discovered the notion of self-delusion through You Are Not So Smart, learned how so many things work via Stuff You Should Know, and began the life-long endeavor to learn about philosophy with The Partially Examined Life.
All this self-examination led a lunch with a friend and former Jehovah’s Witness where I asked them about their experience leaving the religion. Upon hearing the details of their escape, my pent up beliefs escaped from their hiding place and lay exposed for the first time.
I had intended to tell my wife first but hadn’t worked up the courage. Given that the cat was out of the bag, I steeled myself and broke the news after the kids were in bed. “I don’t think I believe in God anymore,” I started. Save for admitting infidelity, I can’t think of a more difficult conversation. Our relationship was based on the Christian God — we didn’t date, we courted; we didn’t kiss before marriage; God was involved throughout our wedding ceremony— and here I was removing Him from the picture entirely. So many questions I had no answer to. So many answers that weren’t good enough. But, we made it, and now my secret was a secret we shared.
I began to reach out to others, in particular those who appeared deeply involved in their religion, to see if I could identify something I was missing: a magic thought technology who would make me believe again. I found no such dingus. Instead, I found a cacophony of mingled belief and non-belief shrouded in simple labels: Christian, Quaker, Mormon, Atheist. Learning of these individual’s complexities has led me to regret my years of silent doubt. And yet, I remained silent for a while longer.
Unannounced to my wife, I mistakenly waited for her to accept my lack of belief in God before breaking the news to my parents. It took exactly one session of therapy — my first session, in fact— for my therapist to make me realize what I was asking of her. When I brought it up that evening, she unequivocally said, “I think it would be better if they knew.”
On March 19th, 2015, I sat down and wrote the first paragraph of this post. As I started the second paragraph, I knew it was time. I drove to my parents’ and for three hours, my stream-of-consciousness poured out, peppered with their questions. “Are you open to changing your mind?” I’m a Neil deGrasse Tyson Agnostic, so I am open. “What about Kara?” She knows. “Do you know we still love you?” I do.
It’s been two years since I realized I no longer believe in God — or really anything supernatural. I could have and should have handled it more swiftly, more openly, more honestly.
I still need to change my religion on Facebook.