i have adventures (sometimes)

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

My Untestimony: Part 1

This is a post I've been meaning to write for quite some time. I've been putting it off because it's not easy to write. I don't know where to start or finish, or, for that matter, what to say in between. (I'm not sure studying postmodernism benefited me. Thanks a lot, English lit.) And I've been putting it off because I'm worried about who my story is going to hurt.

But it's my story. It's not an attack. It's not a call to arms. It's just me. So here it is - or some of it.

A lot of people don't know the beginning of the story. I imagine a fair few don't know the next part yet, based on the astonished reactions I still get from people who knew me before.

Ok, it's pretty scandalous that I'm still pretending I remember any Spanish or Latin, but let's skip over that iniquity for now.

For those of you who missed the update, I am an atheist.


And for those of you who are new to my life, until as recently as a year ago, I was going to church twice a week and singing in the band with my arms raised.

Um... surprise?

A big part of Christian culture is your testimony.  I always felt inadequate about mine (a common theme for me, but I'll come to that), because it lacked proper drama. I'd never been promiscuous, or a drug addict, or even mildly rebellious. And all the stuff that was wrong with me was still wrong with me. I'd always been Christian. I'd gone to Sunday school, and then, naturally enough, gone to youth group, and then, naturally enough, "given my life to Christ", and then, naturally enough, gone on all the camps, and then, naturally enough, picked a church I liked and stayed there.

And so that was my story. That was my testimony.

I'm rather prouder of the story I have to tell now. So here is my untestimony. Cheekily titled, because I may as well go to hell for a sheep as a lamb.

How the Truth Set Me Free 
My Untestimony: Part 1

When I say that I used to be, like, really Christian, it's not because it's a point of pride for me. It's just because I need to communicate that losing faith was a big deal for me - and a big shock for most of those who knew me. I don't mean that I was actually all that holy, however hard I tried. I just mean that I was more than nominally Christian, and more than a little scornful of people who called themselves Christian because they went to church on Christmas and Easter.

No, I was really into it. Church, cell group, worship team, camps... And, yeah, those are just things, but they're things I did because my heart was really in it. I said I loved God, and I meant it with everything I had. I imagine people will say that I never really did. That I was never a "real" Christian. I would like to tell them to get stuffed, but I imagine they'll keep on believing that anyway, so it doesn't seem worth the effort.

Been there, done that, quite literally have several tshirts.
But at the same time, I should qualify that. I wasn't as "good" a Christian as most people I knew: my friends, my brother, the people I knew from camp... I knew that, on some level, I was always getting it wrong. My faith wasn't strong enough. I didn't pray hard enough. I couldn't speak in tongues. I didn't read the Bible enough. I was a terrible evangelist. I didn't listen to God enough. I didn't tithe enough. My thoughts were never sufficiently pure.

But I wasn't kidding about the tshirts.
I lived with a constant sense of inadequacy. Even as I believed I was saved by grace and faith, I spent my life trying to live up to an impossible standard. It constantly broke me down, leaving me weeping in gratitude that God would still love someone as weak and pathetic as me.

I wish I'd seen it that clearly at the time.

It was my politics that really first led me to question. As I became more and more feminist and more and more outspoken about LGBT issues, I really battled to align my beliefs with those of the church. Especially my church, which was in retrospect far more conservative than I realised - honestly, it's only now that I've even realised that there are some churches that are ok with things like premarital sex, and that that doesn't mean that they're "fake" Christians.

Anyway, towards the end of 2010, I started getting into feminist and queer theology in a desperate attempt to make sense of God, the Bible, and the world. I found scraps of faith in alternative interpretations of scripture. It sustained me for a while, but it couldn't last - because what I couldn't ignore was the backbending. These writers and I were tying ourselves into knots to justify in Biblical terms the things we knew were right.

So why did we need the Bible at all?

It hit me that the fundamentalists I was (and am) so opposed to were cherrypicking from the exact same book to justify points of view which directly opposed each other, which had to mean that there was no objective morality to be found in the book itself. We had to be working from some other moral standard.

But even without the Bible, I reasoned, I still had God. I still had my experience of God... Right?

It didn't take me long to realise that every "experience of God" I'd ever had could be explained away by chance, wishful thinking, emotional hype, or my own intuition. It was the most unsettling realisation I'd ever had. I had so much to lose. My life, my friendships, my worldview - so much was bound up with the church.

But I was becoming exhausted by the guilt, the emotional manipulation, and the constant cognitive dissonance as I tried to bring the things I knew were right in line with the things I was supposed to believe. The things I thought I believed.

So I prayed. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed. For months, I was anxious and miserable. I felt, not for the first time, like God had abandoned me. I was broken. I was on my knees. And yet he didn't seem to have any interest in answering my questions or my prayers.

"Anything yet?"
At last, I reached a point where I had to accept that either God didn't care about me, or he didn't exist.

So I swapped my reading material. I traded the Bible and theology for Dawkins and Hitchens. I stopped being afraid to confront the questions I'd never been able to answer. And for the first time, I saw I was right not to be satisfied with the pat non-answers about how God is mysterious and we can't possibly hope to understand him. I was right to be furious about the church's attitudes towards gender and sexuality. I was right to keep on asking questions.

I was right, dammit!

It was like my world exploded. My mind felt like it had been blown wide open. All the questions, all the doubts, every bit of cognitive dissonance I'd been suppressing, suddenly demanded answers. Answers I couldn't give.

Ultimately, I reasoned that if God was all we said he was, then not only did he want me to believe in him, but he could show me unequivocally why I should. In short, I decided to stop worrying and get on with my life.

So I left.

I wish I had half the writing talent to convey the difference it's made to my life. I've stopped feeling anxious all the time. I've stopped worrying about other people's souls. I don't have to feel guilty about not "spending time with God" or "listening to God". I'm not trying to resolve the impossible disjuncture between reason and faith. I used to think I was just an unhappy person. As if feeling constantly on the outermost fringes of depression was a personality trait God had lumped me with for reasons best known to himself.

It wasn't until afterwards that I realised what I'd been missing. The freedom I have now has completely opened my mind.

The thing is, I thought I felt free before. I want to say that very clearly, because I know exactly how this is going to sound to a lot of people. I truly believed that I was free in Christ. I really thought I had no guilt. I didn't leave because I was failing to rely on grace. I left because it was the only way I could be true to myself.

And no, I'm not completely happy. Because life still happens. I still have my issues. I still have break ups and dissertation stress and shoes that fill up with water the minute a rain cloud is anywhere near me. I still hurt people and get hurt. I still make mistakes.

But I'm happier than I've ever been, because my life is on my terms now. I'm accountable to myself and to the people around me. I'm not accountable to the "loving" parent who lets children starve to death and turns a blind eye to honour killings and corrective rape. My life is full of wonderful people. The universe constantly amazes me. There's more to learn and do than I'll ever be able to fit into one lifetime,* and the thought fills me with such awe that I can hardly contain it.

There's a great big wonderful world on the outside that I never even knew was here, and I haven't looked back.
 "The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more." — Ayaan Hirsi Ali
*I apologise if I just got the Circle of Life stuck in your head and now you're all sad about Mufasa again.


  1. Wonderful post, thanks for sharing your story....and congratulations :)