I have been thinking lately of the past, of my Christianity, or lack thereof. I have been thinking of God and wondering to myself ‘Am I missing something here?’ Am I diminished in some way by my complete atheism? Is that the piece of the puzzle that fell on the floor and was eaten by the dog?
My mother’s family is United Methodist, a respectable, quiet, and fairly liberal branch of Protestantism. My father’s family is Presbyterian, which is practically the same thing so no one made a fuss when my parents chose to attend the Methodist church and bring up their children in that church. My mother and grandparents have always been very active members, lay leaders, Sunday school teachers, and choir members.
I always hated Sunday school, but then I just hated school in general. I hated getting up to go to early service (all of 8:30 a.m.), but then I just hated getting up in the morning. I didn’t mind church. I didn’t mind afterward, being part of the community, in the fellowship hall with donuts and hot chocolate, chasing the other kids up and down the halls, being in the nativity play. I even won an award for being the youngest member to ever remember and recite all the books of the Bible. They put me in the same confirmation class as my older brother, because heaven forbid he do anything I couldn’t do. I remember saying my confirmation vows in front of the entire church when I was thirteen.
I also remember from a much younger age crying myself to sleep at night. They told us in Sunday school all you had to do was love Jesus and ask him to come into your heart and you would feel his love and everything would be alright. I remember going home and laying in my bed and saying my night time prayers and asking Jesus to come into my heart and feeling…..nothing. I cried, oh how I cried, and begged and prayed and felt no different from the moment before. I was young, six or seven, and I forgot about it and got on with the business of being a good little Christian. I would make myself worthy of Jesus, worthy of God.
We moved to a new town and a new church, still United Methodist, shortly after my confirmation. I started saving half of my weekly allowance for the tithing tray, praying every day, going to Sunday school and helping with the younger kids. The more I tried, the less Christian I became. I listened to the sermons and tried to make sense of them, but I just heard the same stories I’d heard a million times before. Moses and the Pharaoh, Noah and the
I started growing up and reading books which made me think. I started asking questions. Why did God drown the entire world? Why not just the evil people? Better still, why didn’t he send down an angle to tell them to straighten up? Why kill everything, the children, the trees, the animals (I always had a great love for animals) just to prove a point? That was the first set of questions I pondered while the preacher talked. It was in church, while the preacher talked, when I realized I didn’t believe in God. I was fourteen.
I didn’t tell anyone at first. That’s not something you just pop up and announce, but I was still a teenager, and as with most teenagers it didn’t take long to boil over. My brother knew first, then my Dad, then came the blowout, raised voices, slamming doors confrontation with my mother. In the end she realized she couldn’t make me go to church anymore, though she hoped I’d always come back around. I was fifteen.
At school it was the thing to talk about. “You’re an atheist?” “How can you be an atheist?” “So who do you think made the world?” I weathered that storm pretty well. Being challenged made me think. Being forced to explain it to someone else made me understand it better myself, but it didn’t change my mind.
Since becoming Buddhist I think I have found a greater understanding of my Christianity than I ever did in church. I wonder if the Methodist church had the kind of intense intellectual tradition that I’ve found in the Buddhist traditions, would I still be a Christian? Was it simply that I had grown beyond the parables and the stories and had nothing else to turn my mind to? I known now that there is greater depth to Christianity than I ever glimpsed in my childhood in the church.
I am still an atheist.