"The silence was deafening."
I was raised as a pastor's son. For a while we were, I suppose, nondenominational, but in essence evangelical. Then we moved to an officially evangelical church. I was taught to believe that we ought always to seek out the Lord's will in any given scenario.
God seemed to be calling me to a conservative bible college, so that's where I went. I soon found myself quietly disagreeing with many things there: rules, practices, theology, and so on. I like to say that this gave me an early taste of being in the ideological minority where religion is concerned.
It was while attending that I had entertained a dream of becoming a hospital chaplain. I wanted to help people through those dire circumstances, and do so in a deeper and more complex way than just throwing religious platitudes at them with some proof-text verses.
Working at a Christian camp over the summer, I met a girl with whom there was mutual attraction, but I wanted to ensure that we would be doing the godly thing by getting together. So I said we should hold off and pray about it.
I asked God repeatedly (to make sure I wasn't putting words in his "mouth") what he wanted, and, each time, I heard him say that, not only should we get together, he'd been planning us to be married for years. And, when we discussed it afterwards, she had heard the same answer. So we got together and fell hard and fast in love,
But none of that stopped her from stomping on my heart when she didn't feel it anymore. So, in addition to a broken heart, I was left not trusting anything God said, since I had no way of knowing if it was him, me, or even Satan. I tried to put on a brave face, but even I had to admit something was wrong when an acquaintance asked if he could pray for my very visible distress, and I coldly said, "No," and immediately walked out of the room.
After about two weeks of this, I decided to Kierkegaard my former love and just believe harder (inspired by watching The Prophecy 2, of all things). That worked for about two months, when I finally faced the fact that I hadn't addressed any of my doubts and, in the meantime, they had deepened.
I had so many questions that no one could adequately answer. Why would an omnipotent deity who wants the entire world to know about him start with just one guy out in the desert (Abram)? Why would Paul and James wind up in the same canon despite clearly disagreeing throughout the latter parts of the New Testament? Why do the resurrection narratives, and more broadly the Gospels as a whole, look exactly like a legend developing over time? Why does the world make so much sense if we understand it operating without a god, whereas it raises more questions if we posit a god? Et cetera. Et cetera.
My training said to seek out godly people to help in times like this, and, at a bible college, there seemed to be a veritable bevy of them! But the answers I got to my questions were either meaningless, fallacious, or contradictory. A couple of examples:
1. I asked an older gentleman I was acquainted with why he's so certain that revelation continued after Malachi (Judaism is incorrect), but stopped before Muhammad (Islam is incorrect). He said, "Well, if you look at Jesus' message, it's all about love. When you look at Muhammad's, it's all about obedience and wrath and hate." I kept waiting for him to come back and give a fuller answer, but he never did.
2. When asking multiple people why God wasn't talking to me anymore, despite allegedly wanting a relationship with me, I heard, "Satan is trying to attack you," "God's just testing you; you haven't done anything wrong," "There must be some unconfessed sin in your life," "Why would you expect to hear directly from God in the first place? He does that very rarely," and so on, all with the same amount of confidence, and with the same amount of proof that their response was the right one.
When I gave up on finding rational answers to these questions, I fell back on hearing directly from God. I told him time and again that, if he talked to me in a way that I knew it was him and not something else, I would hang all the questions. Even if he was nothing like I had been raised to believe, I would accept him as whatever he was.
The silence was deafening.
I ended many of these prayer sessions huddled on the floor, in tears, but I kept trying. I would tell myself, "The moment you want to give up and then keep going, that's when God makes himself known!" I told myself that over and over. Finally I set a deadline because this process was making me a bitter, vile person. When God failed to meet that deadline, I prayed, "All right. If you are out there somewhere and want something to do with me, you know where to find me and how to get through to me. Until then, I'm doing my own thing. Peace."
That was New Year's Eve, 2013. We were between semesters at college, and I had yet to sign up for the next one. I never did, and I've never looked back.
I went into Zen Buddhism for about a year. I recognized that there were elements of Buddhist belief I didn't hold, and really couldn't after my rude awakening from Christianity. However, I sort of crudely made it work by either relegating those things to "not the point of Buddhism" or "it'll make sense the further I go along," depending on the topic.
Once I fell away from meeting with a Buddhist group in town (because they said stuff like "Science tells us that energy and matter are the same thing, and we know that love is just energy. So that means we are all just frozen love!"), I took to practicing on my own until I could find a new one. It was in this period that I began to see how much I'd been contorting Buddhism into what I wanted it to be.
As far as gods and heaven realms and hell realms go, I was content ignoring them and just remaining agnostic. But then at what point am I truly believing what the Buddha taught or am I just making up my own thing and dressing it up as Buddhism?
As far as rebirth, I could jury-rig it through the concept of anatta, which means that everything you think is uniquely "you" is only temporarily holding together and actually has no "you"ness about it. Thus, the things which make you up came from somewhere else and would go somewhere else, becoming other beings along the way, once you died. However, a crucial junction of rebirth as pertaining to Nirvana is the transmission of consciousness as another aspect of anatta. As hard as I tried, I found no method by which one being's consciousness could become that of a newborn being, and actually found plenty to say that it was simply a byproduct of the physical brain with no independent existence.
So, with my attempt at claiming Buddhism dashed, I abandoned religion altogether and now call myself an atheist. It's taken some time to acclimate to that word, but I accept it as a factual descriptor.
- Nathan Smith