January 06, 2015

Dear Christians: A rough year did not cause me to lose my faith

This weekend I identified as an atheist for the first time to my best friend, who is a Catholic turned Baptist. It wasn't a big to-do--it came up quite naturally during a lunch date.

I wasn't necessarily worried about the conversation--flying spaghetti monster knows, we have had worse disagreements over the thirteen years we've been friends--but I was definitely curious as to what her reaction would be. Much like I imagined, it was fairly nonchalant. Of course, the usual "I'm still going to pray for you," which for me is not a biggie.

The only reaction that bothered me is one that I am coming to expect from those that have been around for the past year: "Was it the past year that made you lose faith?"

Let's start with this: I really hate the phrase "lose faith". I find myself still dropping it occasionally, and I despise that it makes me sound like a passive participant in one of the most important processes of my life.

Personally, I prefer to say that I "left my faith" or "left religion."

But when other people use it, I don't flare up and start kicking kittens. I only do that for grammatical errors.

Instead, in this context, it struck me as a part of the overall theme. The assumption rings that I've had a shitty year, thus I have left Christianity. It's a general trend in people that know or guess that I'm a nonbeliever.


And it has, indeed, been a shitty year. In February, my husband's uncle died and set off a chain of mourning. Next was a beloved aunt, who died entirely unexpectedly. So unexpectedly that my mother showed up on my doorstep in pajamas to tell me.

Then my sister-in-law passed, leaving behind three beautiful children, ages 16, 7, and 5, and it was certainly difficult to reconcile that with a kind and loving deity watching out for us.

Finally, this year rounded out with the passing of another beloved aunt, at the age of 43. She left behind twin daughters who are in their senior year of high school, and a younger daughter who at 14 has just entered one of the stages when we need our mothers most. Her passing was particularly plagued, because she was an amazingly loving Christian woman.

Of course, there was also the loss of my Boots in October. While not a human, he was an important part of my life and my family.

All of this came after a rough several years, with someone quite close to me losing a baby that we were all looking forward to, two other aunts going through struggles with breast cancer, and I myself finding out that I possibly carry a BRCA-1 mutation that astronomically increases the chances that I will battle breast cancer myself--the same cancer my aunt battled, and the same one that took the lives of my grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother. Should my genetic screening come back positive, I will most likely be undergoing preventative surgeries, including a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, myself. At not even 30, it's quite a bit to think about.

There was family drama with my sisters, because it happens. There was the loss of my job, one that I'd worked hard to try to save. And while it was a layoff, it was a blow to my perfectionist ego.

Before I made that switch, I'd had a miserable year at the company I loved before. That year saw me struggling and pushing back and feeling entirely isolated, without support from my superiors.

All in all, yes, this was the shitty cherry on top of a shitty cake.

But it's not why I left my faith.

I plan on delving into some of the milestones along my trail of doubt over the next few months, because I've been exploring them personally. There are definitely nodes along the way where I can see that certain doctrines were challenged. There are moments that I can remember questioning and pushing aside the questions--but they just wouldn't be squelched forever.

I'm sure there are people for whom a shitty year makes them draw closer to religion, and I am sure there are others for whom such a year makes them withdraw from that same force. I doubt, however, that any year can entirely destroy religious belief.

Consider this: Just a year ago, I would have said that I believed in a god, in an eternity, in an afterlife, in the virgin birth and the resurrection. Is any year really enough, all on its own, to kill beliefs of that magnitude?

Not for me.

This is not a sudden turn around after a matter of months of pain. It's the culmination of years of questioning, of understanding and not understanding, of not really being able to fully believe and instead just accepting.

This year did throw me into a more direct conflict with the beliefs that I'd already been ignoring, but that's about it. It put me face-to-face with them, when I had been just paying lip service to them and spending vast swaths of time actively trying not to think about them.

I can distinctly remember sitting in the funeral service for my husband's uncle, and listening to a pastor--who did not know him!--try to ascribe to him all of the qualities that a good Christian should have. Had two kids out of wedlock? Not a problem! You were married in Christ! And I remember thinking to myself, this is absolutely absurd.

Moments like those brought me into that direct conflict, but they didn't create the conflict itself--it was already there, in the back of my mind, and had been for years. Perhaps, even, my entire believing life.

To borrow the expression, it was the seed, already planted. These circumstances just gave it the ideal conditions to finally breakthrough to the sun.

Christians can fall into this idea so easily, simply because faith is such a powerful motivator for so many of them. They think that it must take something truly traumatic for it to just disappear, and pastors foment this idea by encouraging individuals to draw closer to Christ during times of trouble, with the obvious but unspoken alternative being a loss of faith if they don't.

Why is this such a bad thing? It's really not, I suppose. But it does invalidate someone's experience to an extent to try to sum it all up in a simple idea of loss of faith due to difficult circumstances.

It's easy to see how it can be confusing and difficult to understand how someone came to the point of nonbelief, but that's honestly not important. As a believer, one doesn't have to understand it--you can empathize with it happening in someone's life without understanding every minutiae.

Ascribing it to a certain set of circumstances makes it seem like it's a phase someone is going through, and while there may be atheists for whom it is a phase, there's many of us for whom it is not. It's the culmination of years of questioning and searching.

For me, this means that after one of the roughest spells of my life, I am finally, beautifully, at peace within myself. I'm no longer trying to figure out why bad things happen, or why some are blessed and others cursed seemingly arbitrarily. I'm not trying to love sinners and hate sin. I'm at peace, loving people, and enjoying the only life that I have.

And I don't think it's too much to ask that the experiences that led me here be respected, and not written off as a blanket explanation for a wayward or straying Christian.

Because I'm not a wayward or straying Christian.

I'm an atheist. And I'm okay with that.

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