My involvement with religion began and ended at a very young age. I am seventy years old now, and while my memory is hazy on some of the details, the essence and psychological impact of my early religious experience is still vividly with me. It took me many years, however, to come to a deeper understanding of what had happened.
My father was a career U.S. Air Force sergeant, so we never lived in one place for very long, and I grew up never having long-term friends or classmates. He retired from the Air Force in 1962, and we settled in a city in Iowa. I was fourteen.
We soon started attending a Presbyterian church, though I can’t remember any role Christianity ever played in my family other than on-and-off-again church attendance, more off than on. I responded with enthusiasm, however, because it afforded me an escape from the dysfunction of my family and the emotional abuse my alcoholic father constantly inflicted on my two sisters and me, and on my mother, who responded by ceasing to be a meaningful presence in the family.
I remember the minister of the church, Pastor John, as a wonderful man—handsome and physically imposing but gentle, caring, and humorous. All of us in the youth fellowship programs adored him. We didn’t see much of him, however, as we rarely attended sermons; instead we went to Bible-study classes in the basement of the church. Beyond Pastor John, the wonderful thing about the church was the active youth fellowship. I finally had the opportunity to make friends who might stay in my life for a long time. My youth group engaged in many activities that we loved, such as weekend camping trips and week-long canoe trips down the Minnesota River. I don’t recall the religious activities and indoctrinations as ever being heavy-handed, coercive, or threatening. There was no talk of damnation or Hell, only of being “saved.”
At the urging of the counselors, I took it upon myself to read the Bible. They provided little or no guidance, however, on how a fourteen-year-old should go about such a daunting task. But I started reading, Genesis at first, then randomly opening the Bible hoping God would guide my hand. For a year or more I earnestly attempted to understand what I was reading, but the result was confusion, frustration, and a steadily growing feeling that something must be wrong with me. Most of my fellow youth-group members were also reading the Bible; many talked about how it was getting them closer to God. I started to feel left out of the “closer to God” club.
Eventually, difficulties started to manifest themselves in the Sunday Bible-study classes. I was attentive in class and eager to learn, partly because of my failure in reading the Bible. When I was confused, I asked questions. This was fine until the steady accumulation of biblical and theological inconsistencies and contradictions that I noticed reached a critical mass and I began to ask questions specifically about them. While I don’t recall most of these questions, I remember when I first asked one that brought a problematic response—the classic where did Cain’s wife come from? The response was an evasion of the question that also conveyed a touch of annoyance that the question had been asked.
The more advanced the Bible-study lessons became, the more difficult it was for the teachers to answer my questions. (I by no means am suggesting I was a brilliant student probing weaknesses in Christian theology; I was just a confused kid asking obvious questions and seeking clear explanations.) Eventually, the teachers started showing irritation, if not hostility, toward my questioning. By the end, I had begun to feel that the church itself disapproved of me.
The youth group activities, on the other hand, were fun and rewarding. The retreats always concluded with a “Come to Jesus” moment. These were highly emotional gatherings with prayer, encouragement to accept Jesus as savior, and testimonials by counselors and teens about how wonderful the acceptance experience had been and how it had changed their lives. Occasionally a teen would announce with rapturous joy that Jesus had just entered his or her life. I participated eagerly in these gatherings and yearned to feel Jesus’s presence. But it never happened.
I became so eager to embrace Jesus that I began to pray every night. I prayed to God and to Jesus, expressing my desire—my desperate need—to be admitted into their grace. Months passed, and I prayed with increasing intensity and growing fear for my salvation.
The final crises came in Bible study when the topic of predestination was introduced. According to predestination, God had long ago decided everything that would ever happen in the universe. It took me a long time to even begin to comprehend the concept, much less grasp its implications. I know I was shocked that day in class and the following ones and repeatedly came back in my mind to the question “Why?”
Then the full implication hit me: God was refusing me, apparently having decided long ago that I would be excluded from His grace and condemned to damnation (and torture!) for all eternity. I never had a chance! I decided to bring this up in Bible study without revealing that I was still among the unsaved. I asked if someone accepts Jesus as their savior and invites Him into his or her life, but He never comes, does predestination mean God had previously decided this would happen?
The answer was yes. I responded by expressing disapproval: So God condemns people to Hell, never even giving them a chance to avoid it? How can God be so unfair? I am still shocked, fifty-five years later, that the teacher’s response was the verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. Here my memory fails me; I cannot pull forth the full depth of despair I know I felt after that.
Soon after, I lay in my bed one night praying, overcome with fear and dread. I prayed desperately for my salvation “Please God … please God … .” I don’t remember my actual words, or how long I prayed, but then I stopped. I laid quietly for a while. Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, rebellion roared out with an angry explosive force from somewhere deep within me: “THIS IS BULLSHIT! … FUCK THIS! FUCK THIS!” I was shocked; I had never even remotely harbored such thoughts.
In the following days and weeks my anguish disappeared, as did any interest in religion. My anger faded away, and a calmness, a sense of peace, came over me. I had, in an instant, rejected religion with absolute finality. I can’t explain why my rejection was so sudden, explosive, and absolute or how as an emotionally insecure fifteen-year-old in the throes of an existential panic I could have rescued myself in this manner.
In retrospect, I think my disastrous experience would not have happened if it were not for two serious shortcomings in the church’s approach to the youth fellowships. The first was leaving the teaching of the Bible and Presbyterian theology to lay volunteer members of the church whose understanding of Presbyterian theology and scripture was shallow and who were ill-equipped to handle overly inquisitive students. I doubt the teacher who taught us about predestination had any idea that it was controversial and problematic within Presbyterianism almost from its origin in Calvinism. Many Presbyterian members, elders, and theologians for centuries have expressed the same objection I tried to express—that God wouldn’t do such a cruel and unfair thing.
The second problem was that the conversion experience was mishandled by the counselors. They led impressionable young teenagers to believe it would be visceral, real, and unmistakable. My spiritual despair stemmed from not experiencing this. I doubt there is only one specific conversion experience that “saved” Christians claim to experience—the one I was led to expect. I suspect the experience varies widely and, in many cases, does not involve visceral “realness,” intense emotion, or the absence of doubt. If my counselors had not taken the approach to conversion that they did, and if my Bible-study teachers had possessed the wisdom to seek help from Pastor John, my early Christian experience might have been very different. But they didn’t; as a result, I suffered what can only be described as intellectual, spiritual, and emotional abuse at the hands of my church.
It was years before I again gave any thought to religion. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, I went to college where I discovered an inclination toward the sciences. I earned a BS in biology and an MS in environmental engineering, then began a long and satisfying career as an environmental engineer.
Sometime in my mid-thirties, I started studying Christianity again out of intellectual curiosity. I confess that my real aim was to debunk Christianity and religion in general, perhaps to provide a rational and objective basis for my earlier emotional rejection. My main interests were to develop a better understanding of the irrationality, absurdity, and anti-humanistic nature of Christianity and the fundamental falseness of its historical, scriptural, and theological claims. This turned into a lifelong avocation, though I long ago satisfied myself as to the true nature of Christianity. The more I studied Christianity and religion in general, the more I became convinced that it is harmful and threatening to human society in many ways. Along the way I embraced secular humanism and joined organizations that actively seek to counter the threat of religion.
Even if I had “found Jesus” as a teenager, I still would have arrived at the same beliefs I hold now, due to the unsustainable nature of religious claims and to my own rational nature, which must have been lurking somewhere within me at age fifteen.