I am—have always been, truly—an atheist. Despite wrestling with various gray-scale phases of religiousness over the course of my life, I’ve never made it over that fundamental chasm, the binary yes or no of theism. Even when I desperately wanted to believe, I could never get there.
I like to think I gave Christianity a fair shake. I fell in love with a Christian boy in college who upended my preconceived notions of what that might look like. He was brilliant, kind, and didn’t once when I knew him go to church on a Wednesday. He was the kind of Christian that could make a girl reexamine her stance. There was some compromise on both ends, though. He didn’t believe in sex before marriage, but apparently I was the kind of atheist that could make a boy reexamine his stance, too…
For a long time, we kept the issue mostly compartmentalized from our relationship. Except for the scant few times when I visited his parents’ house—when we prayed before meals and slept in separate bedrooms—it wasn’t an issue. Or, not an issue we talked much about at least.
Towards the end, when we were already falling apart, the question of our differing beliefs became another reason our relationship glue began to rot. He dug in his heels, asked his pastor for advice, and I realized I was going to have to go all-in or walk away. I was young and in love with a brilliant and kind man; walking away never really occurred to me as a viable option.
So in the face of every internal alarm warning me at full volume, I tried to convert. Genuinely, sincerely, earnestly tried. I went to church, I read the Bible and CS Lewis, I prayed, I asked a lot of questions. He had a lot of great answers to my questions, except the one that mattered most: How do you believe in God? Not why, but how?
It was easy for me to understand why he was a Christian; most of the teachings of Christ are a lovely fundamental structure on which to build your choices and behavior. But there’s a lot about Christianity (the only religion I’ve spent any significant time with) that doesn’t make any sense to the person on the pre-jump side of the leap of faith. How do you believe in the supernatural? How do you abandon the burden of proof? How do you accommodate the notion that you must love and follow this invisible, voiceless being above your family, your friends, your beloved? How do you deal with Abraham and Issac?
“I have faith,” he’d answer.
Faith was the one thing I couldn’t grasp. Faith was the one thing I needed to grasp it.
Fucking convenient, that.
I should mention here that this boy grew up with Christianity. This is important. His liberal, hippy parents encouraged a rumspringa of sorts, with the condition that he must attend some kind of religious service every Sunday. “We don’t care where you go, but you must try something!” When he returned to evangelical Christianity (never really having left, mind you), now he could feel like he was returning with enough life experience to feel confident he’d made his own objective choice.
It makes me angrier now that I have distance from the whole thing, but this flawed logic of his parents, and by extension his flawed logic, provided a convincing enough patch at the time, covering the gaping holes in his story, his alleged rational choosing of Christianity.
Like I said, we fell apart, this boy and I. When we split up, I redoubled my efforts to believe, in a pitiful and misguided effort to get him back. In that vulnerable state, my desperation was so raw that I was in prime condition to make the leap. I searched for meaning in everything—in all the pauses between words, in what we said and didn’t say, missed phone calls, half-smiles, songs on the radio, bald-faced coincidences—I was ready to believe anything that would bring sense and structure back to my life. I needed something external to come in and help me make sense of my world, and I started to go to church without him. I wanted badly to find God in my pain because I didn’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with the chaos and confusion of unexpected grief.
But I couldn’t. I just… could not. Even with the comfort of church, the relief of praying, and the guidance of theologians, I still couldn’t get my mind to accept belief in the supernatural. I went right up to the edge and dangled my feet off the cliff but I couldn’t make the jump.
Gradually with time, I returned to myself. I realized that life is full of things that happen for no reason, and began to find comfort—joy, even—in knowledge that there is no accounting or fairness in my existence. There is nothing keeping score or balancing the good with the bad. We are not owed anything in this life or after, and none of the bad shit or the good shit that happens around you is personal. Letting go of my quest for meaning gave me the freedom to enjoy my life at face-value, instead of constantly trying to fit the ups and downs into a larger pattern of destiny.
I stopped struggling to force an incompatible belief system into my rational brain and finally accepted—albeit reluctantly at first—that skepticism is my default setting.
Something became very apparent to me in those moments of returning clarity. Those that are taught from a young age to believe in God never have to jump across a chasm of reason—they’re raised firmly planted already on the other side. It’s much easier to say that faith will keep you from falling when you don’t have to jump.