As I write this (September, 2012), I am 37 years old (going on 12), reflecting on all the spiritual and religious stops I’ve arrived at before landing here. What a ride!
I didn’t grow up with church or religion. We were ‘Christian’ insomuch as we weren’t Jewish and we celebrated Christmas, and ‘Protestant’ so far as we weren’t Baptist or Catholic. I remember being jealous of my friends who went to Sunday school or catechism class.
In 6th grade I spent a week with my father, 2 of my brothers and stepmother, whose family is religious. They talked to me about God and forbid me from watching the Care Bears because there were bad guys in it. I was as excited to go home with my own Bible (my very first) as they were to buy it for me. I’d chosen a thick illustrated children’s version.
At 14, Mom took us to the new Lutheran church in town. I enjoyed it, though I understood very little. Since it was within walking distance, I continued to attend even when Mom stopped going. I am still friends with my former pastor and his wife.
Throughout high school I attended church regularly, but wasn’t really involved. I only knew that I enjoyed the sermons, singing, and the people. In late high school a friend talked to me about Wicca and I was intrigued. I never got to the point of taking it very far, but I sort of dabbled in that and ‘new agey’ stuff.
At 19, while recovering from a knee injury, one of my therapists was an evangelical Christian and eventually began talking to me about God, Jesus and salvation. I’m not sure what exactly he said that changed me but after awhile I had a ‘spiritual enlightenment’ which I probably would have described as ‘born again experience’ if I hadn’t been Lutheran. I kept going to my Lutheran church but renounced all interest in witchcraft (actually I felt threatened by it) and became a total Jesus-freak. I bought a Bible and asked my therapist to sign it. Yes, I read it. I wore Christian t-shirts with clever logos, handed out those little ‘Pass-it-On’ cards, listened to Christian rock, went to a couple tent revivals, thought everything and anything was a sign from God, and essentially thought what I had was the best thing going–Jesus was the only way, and I had Jesus. I pitied atheists and people from other religions and had a condescending attitude towards them. Somewhere in all this I also got my mom to go to church, and by now I was going to a different Lutheran church.
Once in my early 20’s I asked my dear friend Barbara why my Hindu pen-pal seemed more Christian than many Christians I knew. She replied, because he said yes to God. At some point after that my religious superiority began to diminish. I think being in a mainline Protestant church helped, because the ones I attended had more of a ‘live and let live’ attitude. I morphed from Jesus-freak to more contemplative–I listened to Gregorian chant, saw more mystical aspects of God, and began to see God in nature, which I’d always loved. The more secure I felt in my faith, the less threatened I felt by beliefs that differed from my own. I think it was 1997 that I insisted I heard God tell me that he wanted me to become a pastor. Lemme’ just tell ya’ now that God’s voice sounded very much like the voice in my own head, except it intruded upon whatever else I was thinking about at the time. I never did go anywhere with the idea, probably because of my underachiever traits.
I moved away from home in 1999, and into a world where people were more than white, middle class, heterosexual, Christian families. I’d always craved diversity so this was great–once I got past seeing bars on the windows in certain parts of town.
Once my work schedule allowed me to have Sundays off, I found a Lutheran church and eventually joined. I remember some cognitive dissonance relating to questions and doubts on and off throughout those years. I recall struggling with it for a time, then reverting back to being ‘friends’ with God again.
It wasn’t for maybe 3-6 years that I began exploring other faiths, which included brief tastes of other Christian denominations, peripheral interest in Islam & Judaism peppered with stronger interest in Native American spirituality and Buddhism, and very strong interest in Hinduism and Sufism. To this day I remain fond of the Hindu gods and their myths, and can’t bear to part with the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz.
I think it was around 2006 that I began to see God as too big to fit the parameters of one religion. There were days that I attended my Lutheran church listening to Hindu chants on the way there and reading Rumi afterwards. I wanted to experience God in the contexts of all religious expression–if God were ice cream, I needed a Baskin-Robbins! There’s no doubt that my dabbling in mysticism sparked this flame in me. To be honest, while I now lack belief in deities and magical claims, there’s a part of me that wants to revisit mysticism for the sheer feelings it evoked in me–and I probably will from time to time.
I desperately craved a place where all religions had a voice and expression. I actually went on a long hiatus from church (maybe 2 years?) when my work schedule changed. When Sundays opened up for me again, I briefly looked into Ba’hai but it didn’t quite resonate with me. Nor did the United Church of Christ.
Then I went to my local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and fell in love. Omigosh, I’ve been a UU all this time and just didn’t have a name for it! The UU “Seven Principles” and “Six Sources”, the focus on social and environmental justice, the truly accepting atmosphere, the intellectual approach, the focus on ethics rather than dogma….and it didn’t matter what you believed about God (or Gods, or Goddess[es]), or if you believed in God at all or didn’t know what you believed. Here, you work out your own spirituality and no one tells you what to think–they just support your journey as you all work together to make a better world. Yup. This was my place.
That’s not to say it was all roses. Y’see, many people coming to the UU faith as adults are on the rebound from negative experiences with other religions. When I participated in the introductory small group meetings, I got upset and wondered if I’d joined a Christianity-bashing session! Thankfully, I hadn’t. At the time I didn’t know exactly what I thought about Jesus, but I was still fond of him (, had no grudge against my former churches, and enjoyed the liturgical rituals. But I was safe there at the UU church just as those recovering from bad experiences were safe.
At first it was a bit disconcerting, not being able to just have answers handed to me. But in time it became liberating. As I settled in, I wasn’t afraid of the conclusions I might reach…wherever I landed, this UU fellowship would be there. I started to feel more comfortable exploring outside my comfort zone.
I think it was April of 2011 that I first encountered a YouTube video titled, “Science Saved My Soul.” It brought me to tears and I watched it obsessively for weeks. It also reminded me of my desire to learn more science. I would have shared it with friends and family but hated the anti-religion parts of it. Forgive me for not recalling the exact timeline but at some point I started looking up atheist videos, mostly I’d watch the cartoon parody type. They were vulgar and irreverent, but often true. One day a couple months after first seeing “Science Saved my Soul”, I decided that it doesn’t matter to me if God exists or not. I still thought there was a God, but if it turned out there wasn’t, I was fine with that too. I watched more YouTube videos (the big names I recal during this time were The Thinking Atheist and DarkMatter2525). I read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, applauding myself for reading something I didn’t necessarily agree with.
In June of 2011, I was on the cusp. I wrote a FaceBook note asking readers to mentally put themselves as if facing that God does or doesn’t exist–whichever is opposite of their current belief. I had put myself in just that spot, and recall being a bit scared of the social consequences of being an atheist. I was mentally walking in another’s shoes–I still believed in God at the time, though I’d slipped into more of deist/pantheist mindset.
And then I didn’t believe. Belief in deities just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not sure when exactly I said to myself, “I’m an atheist,” but it was somewhere between August and December of 2011–I think I vascillated back and forth a bit during those months before actually settling on atheism. Now and again I’ll scrunch up my nose and say to myself, I used to believe thaaaat?
I’m an atheist. But I’m also a humanist and a Unitarian Universalist. And I’m working out in my head and heart just what’s important to me and how to live according to my values. So thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll journey with me.
Links to references above:
Unitarian Universalist Association: www.uua.org
“Science Saved My Soul” video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6w2M50_Xdk
The Thinking Atheist website: www.thethinkingatheist.com
EDIT 3-23-13: found a piece of correspondence to someone that shows I hadn’t necessarily totally settled into atheism in August 2011, but that my beliefs were a bit fluid for awhile first. Edited this piece to more accurately reflect this.