Something I’d like to get out of the way immediately is that this post is going to be very honest. It’s a brief history of my religious upbringing, my crisis of faith and the final pushes to search for truth. Nothing I’ll say in this post is said out of anger or malice. It’s an honest portrayal of the extreme difficulty of leaving something you’d held to be truth for almost 30 years. I imagine that some of the topics and points will offend, but please read to the end.
One of the more frustrating things to come out of leaving religion is that so many theists think I haven’t thought this out. That I’m just going through a phase. I’d be willing to wager that I’ve gone much farther in my pursuit of truth than about any believer out there. I’ve put a staggering amount of time into this journey. So when people wave it away as I’m simply misunderstanding or I just need to hear the right words or verses it’s extremely insulting.
I hope that even if we never see eye to eye you’ll see how difficult this journey had been and how extremely hard I tried to make belief work. Here we go….
– My History –
I was raised inside a Southern Baptist family. My home church was Sunnyside Baptist in Hobart, IN. Both of my parents came from pretty terrible childhoods and they viewed religion and god as the thing that saved them. I don’t blame them for wanting that for me.
Being baptists things were pretty legalistic growing up. This is the bible and its truth can’t be debated. It is what it is.
At the age of 8 we left that church and ended up, after a long church hunt, at Liberty Bible Church in Valparaiso, IN. Coming from a small baptist church to LBC was pretty daunting at first. It was easily 10 times the size of where we came from. They had a flourishing youth program and my parents felt that it was the best fit for our family.
Most of my young life I was “that” religious kid. You know him. He’s awkward looking with coke bottle glasses and horrendous hair and triple hand me down clothes. I told random kids on the bus that I would pray for them and would be mocked in return. One time I even got jumped while fishing and once they started punching me I didn’t even fight back, “turn the other cheek” was being said in my mind over and over. I got the crap kicked out of me and several months of ridicule at school over getting such a beating.
I think the most embarrassing time for me was in 8th grade science class when one kid started calling me a “bible beater” while the teacher was out of the room. He then got the entire class to mock and laugh at me. It wasn’t fun. In fact, it sucked.
I think it was around 9th grade that my apathy for religion and god really started to set it. Being honest with myself I didn’t want to be the kid that got mocked anymore. I fought very hard with my parents to buy me some clothes that weren’t embarrassing to wear to school. It took me over a year for my dad to buy me wide leg jeans because he thought I was going to join a gang. He also fought me on buying a black Carhartt winter coat. “Black coats are what gangs wear,” he’d say. “Why don’t we get you a brown one?” Everything was a slippery slope to my dad.
It wasn’t an overnight transformation that made me the statue of sex appeal and muscles that you see cutting the grass or talking to his son in the store. It was a very slow process of trying to separate myself from what I was because who wants to be “that” kid anymore?
During high school there was another friend from church that had a pretty similar upbringing to me. He was also forced to do church and Sunday School, choir, bible study and at least one other church group (bible quizzing, IMPACT, etc). We’d become numb to god. We’d laugh at our peers that were so moved by the message told by the church leaders. We even had a motion we did that represented the message being spoken bouncing off of our bodies because it was meaningless. I can’t speak for him, but I never felt god. Never felt a presence or call. Everything I was seeing my peers do could easily be chalked up to a group or mob mentality. A psychological effect of emotions. Wanting to fit in and appear godly is cool right? Also, hormones are all over the place so trying to look godly for the girls there was a good way to become popular. I never bought into it.
– Doubt –
It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I discovered how much I loved philosophy and debating tough topics. I went to a private christian college at the behest of my parents and that school was Huntington University.
It was there that I started to have problems with religion. I had a small group of friends that I could sit around with for hours at a time and discuss really hard topics. Some of the larger ones that came to really bother me for years were:
– The fact that our purpose of living was the blow smoke up the skirt of a god that will damn us to hell.
– The thought that a god with a plan can’t/won’t/doesn’t listen to your prayers because if your prayer isn’t in line with his plan then it goes unheard or unanswered.
– God set up Adam and Eve for failure in the Garden of Eden. If he really didn’t want us to “fall from grace” then the tree never would have been there. He would’ve stopped the serpent from deceiving Adam and Eve. He would’ve equipped Adam and Eve with the knowledge of deceit so they could recognize when they’re being lied to.
– God would have either have had a direct hand in creating hell or allowing satan to create it with his knowledge.
– God created the rules by which people go to hell. He damns billions of people there. Is that love? Is that moral? Is that just?
– Anne Frank, a Jew, is in hell because she didn’t recognize Jesus as the Son of God, but Ted Bundy, a serial rapist and murderer, is in heaven because he accepted Jesus into his heart before dying on death row. Is that fair? Is that love? Is that moral? Is that just?
It was around this time that I started dating the girl that would become my future wife, Lori. These questions, and many others like them, would plague my thoughts constantly. Something just didn’t add up. It drove Lori nuts. “Don’t you understand that nobody can answer these questions?”
As you can imagine she was never a big fan of my problems with religion, but she never understood that I couldn’t just switch them off. Once you start realizing things in your beliefs don’t add up you can’t stop thinking about them. I’m an extremely practical person. If something is true I want to know and I can follow it. If it isn’t I shouldn’t waste my time with it.
I know many believers that have doubts and problems (I can’t tell you now how many people have told me they have since becoming an atheist.), but they never seem plagued by them. Where it actually impacts their mental well being.
It wasn’t until about 5 years ago when I approached the head pastor of my church with a snippet of my issues. I said, “What’s the point of it all? If me being a good person doesn’t matter if I don’t love Jesus, if God really gave birth to Himself and then killed Himself to save us from Himself and we exist to glorify Him, what’s the point? Doesn’t it weaken the story of God that He had it all laid out in a plan of brutal death so we can just glorify Him? It doesn’t make sense!”
His response was immediate, “Steve (a member of our church at that time) is training to run The Chicago Marathon. If Steve completes the marathon, does it make it any less amazing that he completed it if he trained for it?”
“No,” I said.
“It’s like that with God,” was the reply.
While I didn’t take the analogy as totally fair it did do a good job of shutting my mind down. I was just going to be okay not knowing. It’ll all make sense in the afterlife.
– Death and the Horrendous Pain –
On May 16th of 2012 my mom sent me this text while I was at work, “call me now.”
Sensing that something was wrong I called her and asked what was going on:
Me: What’s up?
Mom: Lori is coming to pick you up.
Me: What? Why?
Mom: She’ll be there soon to get you and bring you here.
Me: What’s wrong?!
Mom: Phil (my kid brother) was in a motorcycle accident.
Me: What?! (Thinking he’s seriously injured and at a hospital.) Well, where is he?!
Me: WHERE IS HE?!
Mom: …..he didn’t make it…..
Me: *unintelligible screaming*
I can’t put the pain to words.
A long time ago I’d read an interesting report about non verbal movements and what they mean. For example, putting your hand over your mouth when in shock or pain is the brain’s physical manifestation of trying to stop more bad information from coming to you.
From that moment my mom told me Phil was dead and for several months after I kept, involuntarily, shaking my head back and forth slightly. It reminded me of someone trying to wake themselves up from a dream. I guess it was my brain’s physical manifestation of trying to wake from a nightmare.
None of it seemed real.
Please allow me to be crystal clear when I say that Phil was my very best friend. We weren’t just brothers that got along pretty well. We purposefully shared a bunk bed until the day of my wedding at which he was the best man. Even after I got married Lori and I would spend Christmas Eve night at my parents house so me and Phil could keep the Christmas tradition of waking up early for presents alive.
The only two people on this earth whose deaths could’ve hurt me more would be my wife’s or my son’s. Phil was that important to me.
I was devastated, but I was okay. I was okay with accidents. A man cut Phil off and Phil hit him and he died. I wasn’t mad at god at all. I can accept that accidents happen. If anything I was thankful that it was immediate and, being a cop, that he didn’t get murdered.
I didn’t need the sky to split apart and have god tell me why it was necessary for him to call Phil home. I was okay in that sense.
It wasn’t until the day of the visitation of his body that the truth of the matter hit me. You see, it was believers that drove me insane with anger.
There I am. Not 10 feet from Phil’s body and person after person were telling me about how god has it in control. That we don’t know god’s will, but it is GOOD! I even had some family there that kept forming us into prayer circles to extol to unknowable and unfathomable plan of god and to thank him for his goodness to us!
Screw that! The rage these platitudes set off in me can’t properly be put to words.
What I saw in the visitation line disgusted me. I understand that people were saying what they thought would be good to hear and bring comfort, but all I saw was a bunch of scared people. Phil’s death didn’t make sense to them. It terrified them that someone so young and with so much promise could die so needlessly. How could this happen? They were terrified to think that the world may be uncaring for them and that someone wasn’t in control. So they cling to the idea that a god is looking out for them. It brings meaning to Phil’s death and comfort in the face of tragedy.
My anger still wasn’t focused on god, but the people that espoused him. Could this belief system really make sense? Could there really be a god that saw this coming and sat silently as it happened? Does this god actually care?
It was these believers and their responses to this death that brought back all my old problems with religion with an absolute vengeance. Now I had all the old doubts and a whole host of new ones:
– Is my god the real god?
– Is there a god?
– How do I know the bible is true?
These questions are vastly different than my original problems. You see, back in my doubting phase I was asking tough questions while being insulated in my religion. I was asking them from inside it. Almost any question you ask while inside the religion can be waved away as long as you have faith.
My new questions were independent of my beliefs. I was asking them without being shackled by the rose tinted glasses of religion I’d always worn. So I set out to be as honest with myself as I could. Even if that meant the ultimate end of non-belief.
– Into Atheism –
Please know that I tried the hardest that I could to objectively view the evidence about religion as just that. The religion. I wasn’t judging the religious. Just my beliefs and the bible. I didn’t want to taint my answers with feelings of anger at other believers. I wanted to see how my beliefs stacked up to logic, reason and evidence.
Early on in this section of my life, a little over a month after Phil died, I was stuck. I didn’t know who to talk to. I didn’t know what to read. I had nothing that could be a counterpoint to my belief. I was adrift in an ocean of doubt with nothing to propel me in any direction.
The first thing I did was that I started asking my strong theist friends out for beers and throwing my doubt to them to see how they handled it. Why did they believe what they believed? How do they handle those tough questions I had back in college?
Sadly, I couldn’t find one that could handle all or even a sliver of my doubts or problems. They didn’t have good answers. It just came down to believing by faith.
I even had a dear friend tell me he didn’t like to talk or think about these topics because the questions are hard. I was astounded at that! This is literally what our lives, money, friends and family revolve around and you don’t want to test it’s validity? Seemed like madness to me.
Back to faith. It was sad, but this is what I kept coming to with my friends. So I had to ask, what’s so good about faith? Faith is believing in something without evidence. Please, someone give me an example of that being a good thing to do. I’ve got a hug with your name on it if you can come up with a good reason to believe in something that has no evidence.
After I realized that my friends and church leaders had no good responses to anything I was saying I started searching for good apologist books on the internet. A good book about a good reason for belief.
I can’t effectively relay my shock at turning up nothing worth the paper it was printed on. It was like seeing the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. Everywhere I turned seemed to either say it was faith or some weak logic that could only ever get you to a deistic god (or a generic god that is in no way your particular god) or some ontological argument that relies on special pleading.
I’d heard through a friend that an old acquaintance from our youth group was now an agnostic. I reached out to this person on facebook to pick his brain about how he ended up at agnosticism after being such a well informed christian.
His reply was straight forward in that he’d realized that he’d gained nothing from trying to understand, follow and love god. Since it was bringing nothing positive to his life he left it behind. He shared that we’re all trained as kids in church that we have a god shaped hole in our hearts, but that it wasn’t true. Here he was, 11 years after leaving christianity, at the happiest and most content point of his life. He told me it was okay to doubt.
It was then that I started to get a bit more brave. I reached out to a local atheist friend for a good book to read for someone in a position like mine. That book that would ultimately be one of the most revolutionary books in my life was “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God.”
It’s a book written by an atheist that treats belief with kindness. Some atheist books can be very direct and sound confrontational, but this book was written as a kind of kid glove look at why we believe. It changed my life.
You see the author doesn’t just look at the christian god, but any god. He takes 50 popular arguments for belief and just deconstructs them with logic, evidence and reason. Finally, this book had given me a place to feel safe. It gave me solid footing and a place to hang my hat. It all made so much sense. I wasn’t crazy.
I think I was about halfway through that book when I stopped believing in gods or anything supernatural. I can’t tell you how many people told me that I shouldn’t read something biased and I would just laugh. They didn’t seem to get that the bible and apologist books were biased. They were chastising me for being one sided when all I’d ever been for the previous 29 years was one sided. I was looking at what others had to say about religion and they had the gall to say I was being one sided? Crazy.
It wasn’t that I woke up one day and said, “Today! I’m an atheist!” It was a very slow and painful process of having my faith stripped away like a damn that was beginning to leak until, finally, the damn gives way and you realize you don’t have any reason for believing anymore.
I remember the exact spot I was at when the moment hit me. I was pulling out of a parking space in Target when I said, out loud, “I think god is made up by man because we’re afraid of things we don’t understand and we’re terrified of death.”
It was the most liberating moment of my life. I felt instant freedom! Like my mind was mine! That I didn’t have to cram reality into the small, misogynistic, racist and immoral thinking of bronze and iron age men.
Then, immediately following that, my mind was hit with terrible sadness. Everything I’d been told was wrong. Everything I’d believed was wrong. I knew nothing. And finally, my brother, Phil, was gone forever. I wept in the parking lot.
Was the horror and sadness of realizing that I’d never see Phil again enough to make me believe something I didn’t? No, or to put it as Carl Sagan did:
“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
I wouldn’t allow the pain of leaving religion to keep me from doing it if I really thought there were no gods.
The best analogy I’d come across about this phenomenon is like climbing a ladder your entire life and then realizing you’ve had the ladder against the wrong wall. Do you do the extremely difficult thing of climbing back down the ladder or jumping off? Or do you keep climbing because it’s easier than starting over?
It was in that parking lot that I stopped believing entirely. I realized that what I needed to do next was to educate myself on everything I’d been raised to think was wrong or demonic growing up: science, evolution, cosmology, astronomy, psychology, logic.
I can’t recall a time in my life where I wanted to learn more! I wanted to be informed in my atheism so I could defend myself from any argument that theists may throw at me to discredit my conclusion. Once I felt somewhat adequately prepared I sought out debates to see how easy (or hard) it was to deconstruct arguments for belief. I was actually stunned at how easy it was.
I’m now at a point where I’ve sought out so much conflict in the pursuit of knowledge that I don’t think there’s an argument I haven’t already heard.
– Life Now –
Now, I’m just thrilled to be able to talk about this openly and honestly with everyone!
Believers always think I’m full of it when I tell them that this is the most happy and content I’ve ever been in my life. I feel like for the first time I’m seeing the world as it really is. My mind is mine! I can think freely! I can love people wholeheartedly and accept them as they are!
Also, I’m much more at ease and calm in life. I don’t get as frustrated. I don’t have the big “WHY?” that was always clouding my mind. Why would god allow my mom to have been sick for so long? Why do bad people flourish and good suffer? Why did my brother die? Why are kids dying from cancer? Why are children around the world dying of malnutrition?
Some people have asked me what I have as purpose in this life now that I don’t have a god. It’s about the simplest thing ever: family and friends. I have an amazing wife and 2 amazing and healthy kids. I’ve got an excellent source of friends that I’m always looking to add to. I want to be surrounded by the people I love most and positively impact as many people as I can before I die. How could anything be more important or substantial? How could not believing in gods cheapen the glory of the life I live now?
Others have told me that I have no hope or that I have nothing to live for. Really? Is the sunset not breathtaking? Does music not have the power to move to tears? Does laughter have no meaning? Truthfully, I see the world as much more beautiful now than I ever did before.
I love harder and cherish time with friends and family. Since I see this as my only life, I want to squeeze every drop out of it that I can. The only heaven I believe in is living as an excellent memory to my kids. How could that be an unworthy cause?
– Conclusion –
I hope that if you made it this far you understand that I’m still me. I’m still Nate Pratt. The only thing that’s changed about me is what I believe happens after I die.
Please know that I truly love you all and consider myself lucky to have such excellent friends and family. I know a handful of atheists that have paid very dearly for losing faith in gods and I count myself extremely blessed to not be one of them.
I’m always open to talking about religion, as I still love a good dialogue, so feel free to comment on this blog with problems you may have or send me a private message on facebook or email. I’d love to hear your thoughts or maybe some areas you have struggled in belief. Possibly even share why you still believe after a particularly intense spout of doubt.
One last note, feel free to be as religious around me as you would be around others. I’m happy to sit quietly while you pray or listen intently and respectfully when you talk about god. But please understand that if you come at me with condescension or a jerk mentality in the conclusions I’ve come to, then please prepare yourself for an informed and thought out response that will leave no question about what I believe and why.
Other than that I’m sure we’ll all get along just as swimmingly as when I believed in god.
About Guest Contributor
Nathan Pratt blogs at nathan pratt, a blog that covers a number of topics from religion and skepticism to video games and music. Our new friendship sprang out of our mutual love for discussing philosophical issues with great civility. Nate is a father of 2 kids that have him wrapped around their fingers and a husband to a woman that is, according to him, way out of his league. He is an open, honest and amazingly genuine person.