I had barely stepped into the shower when my “reverse” epiphany occurred. Although I had a degree in theology from a Jesuit university and had spent a year in seminary, one flash of insight revealed what nearly four decades of faith had obscured. The simple truth was this: the God I had always believed in does not exist.
With my delusion fully exposed, I had to face a new reality. All of my prayers had been directed to an imaginary friend, not a living God. Discerning God’s will for my life had been difficult, not because God remains hidden from the best of us but because he simply isn’t there. Terrfiying as that revelation was, I I felt relieved to end the charade of prayer and ritual that had increasingly become impossible to justify. With the fog lifted, I enjoyed a moment in the sun, setting a new course far from the familiar shore of faith.
Navigating this new reality was not easy. I was invested in a world that no longer existed, and the relief from cognitive dissonance was replaced by the hard work of finding new meaning for my life. The glaring truth was difficult to accept all at once, and over the next twelve years I had to gradually disengage from religion and faith.
It was easy to avoid evidence that contradicted my faith when I lived in the believer’s bubble. That is where I was for thirty-seven years. I was born into a Catholic family, and my parents’ lives revolved around our local parish. We went to a small Byzantine Catholic church with a liturgy sung in Slavonic. I was an altar boy who dreamed of becoming a priest—not because the priest was respected and feared as if he were God himself or because he ruled the parish with the power of a feudal lord. I yearned to become a priest because I sincerely believed that God was real and that he was calling me to serve him.
That earnest devotion was the logical outcome of a complete acceptance of faith as an epistemology, a way of knowing what is real. I had compartmentalized my faith, making it immune to the typical queries that a rational person would make. Thinking in that compartment was limited to confirming faith rather than challenging it.
When I graduated from my Catholic high school, I would have gone straight into the seminary but for the intervention of my biology teacher, a Catholic brother. Wisely sensing that my parochial vision was in need of expansion, he suggested that I attend university first. He planted the seed that ultimately, ironically, bore fruit in an epiphany completely at odds with faith. I enrolled in Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Seminary school required no particular undergraduate degree, so my choice of study was wide open. I tried engineering for a year and then math, and I eventually earned a degree in theology, graduating magna cum laude. After a year back at my parish, I was off to a seminary in Pittsburgh, where I completed a full year of studies. During that year, I found that I wasn’t suited for the priestly life.
To say that I was a bit annoyed that God hadn’t clued me into this earlier would be an understatement. Couldn’t he have looked down the road and nudged me in another direction? Now what was I supposed to do? Hey, God, are you listening?! That little seed of doubt was beginning to grow.
I crossed the United States in search of something meaningful to do with my life. I hung onto my faith with white knuckles while riding the ups and downs of various careers: teaching at a Catholic high school, flying jets off a carrier as a Navy flight officer, working at a Catholic conference center, opening a bakery, and teaching blind students to use computers.
Ironically, again, it was the Catholic Church itself that was the most responsible for nurturing my growing doubt. In the late eighties and early nineties, Marywood, a Catholic conference center in Jacksonville, Florida, was a bastion of liberal thought and theology that stood out in a conservative diocese. I joined in 1991 and worked with its director in planning conferences that brought in speakers such as Richard Rohr and covered environmental concerns, nonviolence, and Native American spirituality. When the director was fired on what I considered to be trumped-up charges, I became angry at the church for the first time. When the interim director, a friend of mine, was fired in a similar manner a year later, I could no longer enter a church without visibly shaking. For the first time in my life, I stopped going to church.
I finally had enough distance from the church I grew up in to see it from a new perspective. It wasn’t the sinful human institution used by God to do his will that Catholics are taught to obey. It was just an institution as flawed as the human condition. It is subject no differently than any other institution to politics and the corruption of power. It has the weight of history behind it, but that weight is not stabilizing; it is oppressive. It chains the mind to tradition and closes the door to free inquiry.
The God I had confided in, trusted my life with, and sought direction from was not answering my prayers. How could this God who claimed to be my father not speak to me? Why the silence despite my daily prayers, dogged attendance at Mass, and even fasting? (Once I did a bread-and-water-only fast for all forty days of Lent.)
Most Catholics accept this silence as part of the mystery of God. They try to discern God’s will through a priest or spiritual director; in the writings of the saints, the Bible, and church doctrine; or from the events in their lives. Like a shaman reading tea leaves, they grope for a sign.
But the sign from heaven never comes. God never speaks. There is only silence. . . . The rational mind can draw only one conclusion. God . . . poof! . . . isn’t there.
The next twelve years were not easy. The world I knew was swept from under my feet; I had nowhere to land. I didn’t know any atheists or support groups. I went to a few Unitarian Universalist services, and though their search for truth and meaning is commendable, they still hold onto faith, just in a less defined way than Catholics. I had married a woman of Mennonite faith four years prior to my epiphany, and we had a Catholic wedding at Marywood. We settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, got involved in the local Mennonite church, and had two children. I found projects to work on around our house on the weekends and gradually withdrew from church life completely.
After avoiding the subject for years, I finally decided to read more about atheism. I began to redirect my thinking with The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which led me to subscribe to Free Inquiry, which has opened an entire world of freethought to me that I had only glimpsed before. That led to the discovery of one of my favorite authors and speakers, Christopher Hitchens.
Thanks to Free Inquiry, I now embrace secular humanism, and that has put the world solidly back under my feet.
Greg Hladky lives in Ohio with his two children and a cat named Domino. He enjoys writing short stories and poems on faith and reason. He is currently working on a book based on two years of correspondence he has had with members of the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship and his seven siblings, who remain devoutly Christian.