MY personal experience of religion was generally fun, and at no time did I suffer any psychological torment as a result of my belief in Christianity. I was never harassed or mistreated by the community of Chrsitians I was a part of. I really enjoyed myself most of the time, and I took my beliefs VERY seriously.
My path to atheism was a completely intellectual affair. The reason I stopped believing was that Christianity just stopped making sense to me. To me its core tenets defied common sense, and its stories went against logic, science and reason. I then realised that all the other religions suffered the same flaws that rendered them just as unbelieveble. There was just no way I could keep believing in the stories of the bible or any other ‘holy’ book anymore, especially knowing what I came to learn from sciences like biology, psychology, neurology and anthropology. I also came to learn that there weren’t any good reasons to believe in the existence of a ‘God’.
The following story is an account of my transition from belief to non-belief…
I was born, and spent the first decade or so of my life, in Japan, a highly secular Asian country. This society is rather non-religious so for most of my early life I didn’t really know what religion even was. It also so happened that my parents were not that religious either. Sure, they believed in ‘God’, but I don’t ever recall being made to pray as a kid. Yeah, we went to a Baptist Church a few times, but due to the distance from home (there were so very few churches in Tokyo) eventually our family all but stopped bothering to go to church.
In 1985, when I was 10 years old some Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking on our door with all these colourful books about Christianity, and my mother was more than happy to have them visit us weekly to teach us about religion. These sessions didn’t last very long though, since we were shortly to return to Uganda. We did, in 1986.
I was introduced to Pentecostalism (an extremely wacky brand of Christianity) when, in 1989, I joined a boarding school (King’s College Budo) for Senior One at age 14 (Standard One / 8th Grade).
By then I was a highly impressionable high school student, and was eager to absorb my new environment. Of course, it wasn’t easy – especially since older students bullied us into running all their errands. Boarding school life in Uganda is also quite harsh, with all manner of school chores relegated to junior students, of whom we were were the bottom bunch. It was indeed a dog-eat-dog world with all of us having to fend for ourselves. My classmates, also being new themselves, were just as clueless as I was, so I found myself struggling to fit in and find my place, like everybody else.
It was a truly confusing time for me.
One day while I was lying on my bed (having just finished scrubbing the dormitory floors) when a born-again Christian 4 years my senior invited me to attend fellowship meeting scheduled for that evening. I was bored and doing nothing substantial, so I tagged along.
The welcome I got was amazing. Everyone – teachers, seniors, all welcomed me, shook my hand, and gave me hugs! It felt really nice to belong to a group that ‘accepted’ me, and treated me with respect. Believe me, these were EXACTLY the sort of things I craved at the time, having just been enrolled into this boarding school, and living a hard life among strangers for the first time. It felt good being offered the chance to fit in. The music and singing at the fellowships was really nice too. The whole experience was very emotional for me (in a nice way).
At these fellowship meetings was where I first started getting exposed to biblical scripture. I was told that the bible was the word of God. I figured it must be – why else would all these guys be taking it seriously? I listened to sermons about God’s love, grace, etc.. and it all sounded very nice. “GOD LOVES ME!” they kept telling me. The creator of the universe loves me!” I was reminded over and over again.
Slowly I warmed up to the idea, and concluded, if the bible IS the word of God, and it says there’s hell, and it says if I don’t accept Jesus I’ll go there – well, the SENSIBLE thing would be to get saved, right? I mean, who wants to be roasted in hell for eternity? Prior to my conversion I had always kind of assumed that ‘something’ must be out there. Now I was being presented with the claim that the Yahweh/Jesus was this ‘something’, and that this ‘something’ loves me and wants to have a relationship with me. This Jesus died for me so that I could have eternal life. It sounded really enticing!
I got saved.
I started attending fellowship meetings more regularly. Over time my zeal grew to amazing new proportions. I really was starting to enjoy the religious experience. One time I and about 4 of my dormmates formed a mini singing group and staged a performance for our fellowship group. We got a standing ovation! It was great.
Over time, I found myself getting interested in the mystical aspects of Pentecostalism, with the promises of magical ‘spiritual gifts’. I and my friends engaged in what we called ‘demon-busting’ – where we would try to expel demons from ourselves whenever each of us with afflicted with a problem. Those days we blamed demons for everything from headaches, poor test scores, to sexual attraction towards female classmates, so demon-busting was something we engaged in often. In retrospect it all seems very silly, but at the time we were continuously being warned that we were living in the last days, and that we Christians had to engage in spiritual warfare with demonic principalities if we really wanted to save our souls. We were told that by simply invoking the name of Jesus these demons would flee. We took these threats seriously and were working hard to deal with them by believing in Christ and using his name to defeat the ‘enemy’. We often spent hours praying for our friends, family and the world, I remember.
In addition to this, I began to ‘speak’ in tongues. I prayed for my freinds to be baptized with the Holy Spirit, I saw visions and even had prophetic dreams. I reached a stage where I would spend afternoons having conversations with God as a washed my clothes – thanking him for this and that, asking him what he thought I should do to help my parents through their marital troubles, etc.
I was burning with passion to do God’s will at all times.
The more I embraced this spiritual worldview, the more I wanted to know about God. I decided to actively read the bible so that I could build my own understanding of God, and what his will and plan for me was. I developed the habit of carrying my bible alongside my other textbooks to the study hall every single night. Pretty soon, I stopped carrying text books, and would just carry my bible, and it was all I would read during evening study time.
Then I dared myself…I decided I was going to read the bible in its entirety.
I found myself getting immersed in the bible more and more. I must say it helped that I found the stories interesting – interesting in a ‘story-book’ sort of way. The struggles of the biblical heroes against Satan and human adversaries were fun to read.
Things took an interesting twist.
By the time I was just quarter-way through the bible, I was starting to be disturbed by the things I was reading.
I began finding passages where my ‘loving God’ not only approved of, but ORDERED horrendous acts to be committed in his glory. Here, I’m talking about wholesale extermination of tribes like the Amalekites, where not even women and babies were to be left alive! What?? A loving God to order this? This is completely incompatible with the picture of a loving God. Of course the fellowship leaders tried to rationalise for me all these inconsistencies and contradictions, but their explanations were simply too illogical and far-fetched for me to believe.
For example, I was told – in the case of the Global Flood – that God knew that those babies that drowned were going to grow up to commit evil acts, so it was better to kill them off while they were still infants. But this made no sense to me. According to the Genesis passage, we are given the impression that God was surprised that the world would get so ‘wicked’. He is said to have been grieved that he had made them. This cannot be reconciled with the notion that God knew what evils these children would commit when they grew up. It makes no sense. In any case, drowning all of them STILL constituted an evil act.
The Amalekite massacre, the Flood story…all these stories were just so BIZARRE! Too bizarre to be taken seriously, and even more bizarre if I was to be expected to believe that a ‘loving God’ would not only order such horrors, but would carry them out himself.
Well, I thought, that’s the Old Testament. I convinced myself that I should focus on the mesage of love found in the Gospels revealed through Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, the New Testament fared no better. I began to have serious trouble seeing the logic behind ‘salvation’. I mean, according to the bible, here we have an omniscient God who knew everything that would happen even before he created the first electron of this universe. He created angelic beings, of which he KNEW some would disobey him EVEN BEFORE he created them, and that one of them would be Lucifer who would eventually be the catalyst of Man’s ‘fall’. Then he created man and woman whom HE KNEW would disobey him before he created them because Lucifer would tempt them – which he also KNEW would happen…
In other words, God knew from the start, that there would be a fall. In his omniscience he knew how everything would play out, but then he let it play out anyway. So as predicted, Man ‘falls’, and all his descendants, we are being asked to believe, are ‘living in sin’, requiring God to sacrifice himself to himself in order to appease himself and pay the ‘price’ to himself for Man’s sin?
As if this isn’t bizarre enough – those who fail to accept this hard-to-believe story as true and take Jesus as personal saviour then get sent to hell (no matter how good they were) to be tormented for eternity?
No, it made no sense.
I also began to notice there were mistakes in the bible. Now my doubts were really beginning to kick in.
After a lot of thought, and exposure to some literature on human psychology, I started to wonder whether a lot of what I thought were my ‘spiritual’ experiences hadn’t really just been in my mind. This will make you laugh – I dug up my scrap book from a year earlier where I used to write down what I had seen in my many ‘prophetic’ visions from God. Much to my surprise, I noticed that the accounts of my visions strongly resembled monster stories on TV from my childhood. The ‘beasts’ I used to see in my ‘prophetic’ dreams were identical to monsters I had seen in TV shows as a child! I couldn’t believe it!
I was shocked at how the mind could be made to conjure images from memory and make them seem like actual apparitions in real time. Of course as a born-again Christian I saw anything and everything that happened from a supernaturalist perspective. Yes, while praying I used to get that weird shaky feeling stirring inside by body, but now I started to wonder if it wasn’t just me psyching myself into a frenzy. The same with speaking in tongues. Wasn’t I just mumbling jibberish the whole time? But after doing it for a while it started to feel like it came to me naturally. (I can even still do it today by the way).
And so began my withdrawal from Christianity.
I must say that mine was a gradual transition from belief to non-belief. I never had a ‘eureka’ moment where I all-of-a-sudden realized that Christianity was false. It was more like a slow erosion of the mental barriers I had erected in my mind during my time as a Christian. By the time I was 20 I had all but abandoned Christianity, and in the 3 or so years that followed I was somewhat fascinated by astrology – which I got exposed to while I was studying in India (I was pursuing a bachelors’ degree in Commerce). But critical thinking demolished any inclination I may have had towards those superstitions. I was also beginning to learn that miracle healing crusades were fraudulent and that tales of local witchdoctors and their magic were fabrications. I generally came to view the supernatural with a great deal of skepticism until I found there really were no good reasons to think the supernatural even exists – and by extention, even ‘God’.
I really didn’t know what to call myself now that I had done away with all supernatural beliefs. I was quite unfamiliar with the term ‘atheist’ at the time. It wasn’t until 2003, that I really knew what a person like me was called. I was 28 years old at the time. I came to learn that a person like me was called an atheist.
Since understanding that I was an atheist, I began studying many of the issues pertaining to science, religion, and philosophy more seriously, and actively. I subscribed to a number of podcasts that discussed these issues at length, and began downloading and listening to debates between Christian and atheist philosophers and scientists. I also got interested in the Evolution/Creation debate and studied as much biology as I could. I came to enjoy this journey very much, and I countinue to do so, even to this day. There is always something new to learn.
As of now I can safely say I am in a happy place in my life, with no regrets whatsoever. I do not need to believe in a ‘God’ to be a good person. I do not need to believe in a ‘God’ to help others. I do not need to believe in a ‘God’ to derive meaning and purpose out of my life. I am not worried about the ‘after-life’ – there’s no good reason to think one exists, so its pointless to live in anxiety about whether you’re going to heaven or hell. Besides, heaven and hell are products of human imagination arising from a fear of death.
I embrace the fact that life is limited, and so in the few years I have on this planet I intend to make the most of my life!
In Part 2 of ‘James’ Journey’ I will discuss how people in my life have reacted to my walking away from faith, and how new people I meet react when they find out that I am an atheist.