Remembering what you chose to forget
August 21, 2013 7:44 PM   Subscribe

How have you gone about investigating your moments of childhood religious doubt as an adult? Interested in why I "gave up" Christianity but cannot remember my actual process of thoughts and feelings. Snowflake details inside.

When I was a young kid, especially throughout elementary school, I was very enthusiastic about Christianity. Our family joined a few Presbytarian churches as we moved in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. I remember being very compelled by the life of Jesus, making ethical/moral decisions, the qualities of community and integrity, etc.

I also know that a few years later, when I was in 7th grade, I decided to give up Christianity. I literally prayed goodbye to Jesus and said I couldn't believe in him any more. I know that for a couple of years, our family had stopped being so regular at church, my dad was quickly becoming an alcoholic, and home had become a fearful environment with eggshell-covered floors. I also know that I had learned many of the standard critiques leveled against religious thought and, while I never became interested in the dogmatic side of athiesm, remember the tone of thought-voice I used in my head to say goodbye to Jesus to be very rationalistic and some kind of a "well it's impossible to continue on at this point, given X, Y, and Z."

This is really the entirety of my memory on the matter. I wish I had way more insight into what I was feeling (I know increasingly angry at my father and anxious in life) and how that related to doubt, the actual reasons I listed in my head for saying goodbye, and what about the me after that moment changed. I have spent many years since remaining widely interested in religions, developed an on-and-off relationship with a buddhist community, have attended Quaker meetings, but continue to feel like I can't "belong" or I self-selectievely opt out of really truly integrating, and feel that maybe, whatever little switch turned in me as a child could be helpful for finally joining a community and, hell, maybe rediscovering faith. I feel a sort of sadness and empathy for that young kid I was and just want to hear him rant, or wisely suggest something, but I can't quite get there.

Okay, snowflakes aside, I would love to hear your stories of childhood doubt, and any insight into the process of investigating your own story of faith, emotional development, things like that. Thank you as always, mefi.
posted by elephantsvanish to Religion & Philosophy (31 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
My family stopped going to church on Sundays after my grandmother died, when I was seven. (I now know my dad to be an atheist, and my mom "spiritual but not religious," as best i can tell, but didn't at the time.) On the one hand, I prayed nightly ritualistically (it was part of our bedtime routine as kids), and the first time I remember struggling with that was in 5th grade after learning a lot about the Greeks. ("Um... dear God or Thor or whatever? I guess the name doesn't matter so much? God bless my family and all my friends, amen?")

Soon thereafter many of my friends were getting confirmed, and I remember asking my mom what was up with that... probably with the implicit question "so... is this like a thing you Do, growing up?" She said something very calculatedly noncommittal, like "that's a thing you do if you want to. If you'd like to, you can let us know." I remember pondering this respinse hard, and then sneaking one of the family bibles upstairs on the theory that I should really read the whole thing cover to cover before making that kind of a weighty decision. I made it through Proverbs, increasingly disheartened by the contents, and then gave up entirely out of boredom. Eventually I want to grab an Oxford annotated edition with histoical footnotes and revisit it, but it's not high on my list these days.

That said, if people ask me when I became an atheist, I like to tell the story of driving back from vacation bible school at age 4, seeing a burning bush on the side of the road, and insisting that my mom stop the car immediately... so that we could call the fire department to put it out.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:00 PM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had and still have a very religious family. what did it for me starting in around 6th grade was the simple fact that evil is cooler. every kid in Sunday school knows that the best part of the year is going through Revelations, not because Jesus wins but because of all the havoc that Satan causes.
posted by jpe at 8:21 PM on August 21, 2013

I remember that the big stumbling block about being a Catholic in particular was a lack of faith in the Eucharist "truly" rather than "symbolically" becoming the body and blood of Christ, and the big stumbling block about being a Christian in general being the idea that "belief" in the divinity of Christ was mandatory for salvation (not that I ever left Catholicism for a Protestant or evangelical church; I just left Christianity at once). Both of these issues were tackled during my early teens; while I went through Confirmation, it was just lip service, and when I turned 18 I informed my parents that I would no longer be attending Mass (with the possible exception of Christmas and Easter). My mom was disappointed but unsurprised. My dad's response was, "Really? But that's great! That means I don't have to go either!" and from then on, Mass was replaced with mountain biking as our preferred Sunday morning activity.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:24 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I clearly remember my first doubt.

I was about 7 when the Sunday school teacher told the story of Elijah, pouring water on the wood, and the fire of god lighting the sodden alter afire, and I wondered, why can't anybody do that now?

posted by gnossos at 8:27 PM on August 21, 2013

Mine was sort of a gradual thing. My mom married an abusive/stalker guy and things got pretty dark around the house. I went to Catholic school and was getting the usual "God is great and loves you very much". And none of it made sense with what I was going through at home. Everyone I asked about it did the smug adult "God works in mysterious ways/has a plan." And his plan was apparently us nearly getting murdered several times a month, as far as I could tell. And there were other things, like we'd do these meditative-type exercises where we were supposed to feel like we were in the presence of Jesus and I was always acutely aware I was sitting in a schoolroom with my eyes shut, not in the presence of anything. People would talk about "talking to god" in prayer and always felt very much like I was talking to myself. But of course, I didn't say anything because everyone else seemed to actually be talking to Jesus and feel the presence of god (it was only years later that I found out pretty much everyone felt like I did and was only going along with it because everyone ELSE seemed to be feeling it). Those were the stirrings.

The real push away was my mom decided to take the both of us to counseling since I'd started acting out (if you can imagine!) and so we went to this nun lady through the church. She asked me why I was doing what I did and I laid out what I thought were some pretty legitimate reasons like my mom marrying an abusive guy despite the fact that literally everyone told her what was going to happen, dragging me through years of abuse so she could finally have the girl she wanted, and then ignoring me once my sister was born. The nun sighed and rolled her eyes like I was literally the stupidest kid on the entire planet and told me "Jesus wants you to listen to your mother" and then turned to her and the two of them started talking about me like I was possibly the worst kid since Hitler, or even worse, and they were doing it like I wasn't even there and without even listening to me or giving me a chance to explain things.

It's funny, I couldn't even tell you what her name was, but I still remember the red-hot, boiling rage I felt. I still feel it when I think about that moment. One of the ironies is if the adults in my life had been a little less smug and condescending, I dunno, I may not have STOPPED questioning, but it might've been more drawn out. But if these were God's representatives and chosen people, then fuck those assholes right?

So I just got up and left despite all the screaming and threats my mom could muster and she finally told me I'd just have to SIT OUTSIDE THE WHOLE TIME if I didn't want to sit there listening to them talk about how I was worse than Hitler and Goebbels' love child (and I wasn't a bad kid, my grades were always good and I did my homework and my fights were the standard schoolyard stuff, I just had a bit of an authority issue ((I still do have a bit of an authority issue))) and I told her if she wanted me back in there she'd have to pick me up and carry me in, which of course she couldn't do since I'd reached the age where I was bigger than she was, so she left me there to sit. I remember thinking if all this was God's plan and he was taking their collective sides, then he was an asshole or a monster, and I didn't want to be part of it and didn't want him in my life at all.

That was the moment. Oh, there were years of reading and searching and looking into different religions and none of them ever felt right or truthful and then, of course, I got the internet and the very early atheist sites like Why Christians Suck did a pretty good job of demolishing what was left of the Christian value structure. Going to Catholic school also helped. I was frequently the best-read person in religion class on the Bible and the catechism and such and it was just appalling to me that these people were claiming they'd found the correct religion and they set their moral compass by it and they hadn't even read the damn book it was based on. Like if I'm gonna join an organization, I'm at least gonna read the bylaws, you know?

The irony is once I was pretty well-established on the atheist/agnostic side, I really got into social justice work as a teenager and that's where I met a ton of really thoughtful priests and clergy and nuns and we had some really, really good discussions and honestly, if I'd known people like that when I was a kid, I probably never would've started questioning in the first place.

If you're looking for a kind of religious community you can hang around without having to join up or something like "church" to be part of the group, I've found the Unitarians are pretty great.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:59 PM on August 21, 2013 [11 favorites]

Looking back I feel like a child's sense of faith is wholly different from an adult's. Kids just don't have the context. I mean it's truly bizarre the assumptions I held as a kid that I didn't know I was holding. I do remember a general sense that religion was a kind of make-believe we were all playing together. I started to feel uncomfortable and skeptical around age 10, thought I didn't call myself atheist for good until my twenties. If I was ever truly religious, I don't see what bearing those beliefs from the surreal world of early childhood could possibly have on my adult worldview.

I also often wish I could join some kind of (atheist) congregation for the community. But I also have ended up feeling somehow isolated when I attend a religious service. It kind of reminds me of pep rallies from high school. Some kind of mob mentality thing that creeps me out. Not sure if that's what's going on for you too.
posted by Gravel at 9:04 PM on August 21, 2013

My mother, while spiritual, was not really a church-goer. When I was about 7 maybe, I told her I wanted to go to church (probably due to some schoolmates talking about it. I live in the heart of Bible Baptist country.) She was cool with it and dropped me off to Sunday school for several weeks. My final visit, and the day that Jesus and I parted ways for good, was the one where the teacher told us that non-churchgoers could not go to Heaven. I was like, "Let me get this straight--my mother, who is about the genuinely sweetest, most forgiving person on the planet, cannot go to Heaven because she is not sitting in this church? (Or, you know, the 7 year-old version of that question.) The teacher chirped, "That's right!" And like Huck Finn, I decided, "Well, then, I'll go to Hell."

Though a simple idea for a child who loved her mother, this conundrum of good people being condemned to eternal fire is a major stumbling point for me to this day. I have given a lot of thought to religion since, and in fact, my best friend is a strong Christian and we have frequent debates on this subject. But everytime I think of religion, it makes just a little less sense to me. I don't remember myself before I was born, and absolutely NOTHING I have experienced since gives me any cause whatsoever to think that there is anything more than the void after we die.
posted by thebrokedown at 10:13 PM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was raised a very unpassionate Catholic in a mostly non-religious family, but I actually adopted Christianity at age 17 and lost it at 19. What caused me to question was entering a church with a theology based around the concept of Eternal Security, and me genuinely not being able to reconcile different New Testament passages with each other on this subject. I think I started feeling I didn't have "ears to hear," and eventually it all just came apart the more I learned about Biblical authorship and canonicity, &c. It was essentially a deconstructionist loss of faith, I guess.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:21 PM on August 21, 2013

Looking back I feel like a child's sense of faith is wholly different from an adult's. Kids just don't have the context. I mean it's truly bizarre the assumptions I held as a kid that I didn't know I was holding. I do remember a general sense that religion was a kind of make-believe we were all playing together.

Yes, exactly-- I don't think I ever really "believed" as a kid, I had more this willful suspension of belief. I had a lot of friends who seemed to sincerely believe and I always wondered if they were truly convinced in a way I had never been.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:22 PM on August 21, 2013

Roman Catholic.

I was about 5, 6 or 7 when I noticed the god from old testament and the god from the new testament were not the same at all and totally contradictory!

But most importantly, around the same time, I was in Sunday school and they kept stressing that god was in everything and everywhere, including in us. An hour later during mass, we were supposed to get on our knees and pray to something outside of ourselves and I thought,"If god is in me, I don't need to pray to something/someone outside of myself."

And that was that. I just really really rejected the idea of a Higher Paternalistic Power that required me to prostrate myself to it.

I'm very spiritual, but totally non-religious.
posted by jbenben at 10:39 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I never got a good enough answer for "Why would all people have to go to hell before Jesus was alive? Isn't that kind of flawed?" those few years I attended twice-weekly mandatory church services as a ward of the state in rural North Carolina.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:47 PM on August 21, 2013

Growing up, I was very religious. Earned my own attendance Bible, never missed a week, sang solos at Christmas, etcetera, etcetera. Even when things were terrible, and they often were, I still had church.

My younger brother committed suicide at the age of 14. I was 16; I found his body. At the funeral, my uncle, the Baptist minister, gave the first part of the Eulogy. It went something like, "I can't reassure you that (brother) is in heaven, because he took his own life." Then he went on with the sales pitch that he gives at all his funerals: "Make sure you sign up for Jesus at my church, so you don't possibly end up in Hell, like (brother!)"*

It was at that point that I had this crystallizing thought:

Either God agreed with this asshole, in which case, fuck God for sending a mentally ill 14 year old to Hell when he made the 14 year old mentally ill in the first place.

Or, God didn't agree with this asshole, but he did dick all to stop him from obliterating what little comfort any of us could find in a devastating situation, so, you know, fuck God.

At first, it wasn't that I stopped believing. I stopped worshiping, which is a vastly different thing. I struggled with it for a long time, tried out some Buddhism, read a lot about the Historical Jesus, and history of the region, and basically came to peace with the idea that men make gods and churches because they need comfort. I don't believe now, but I'm not angry anymore.

Except, you know, when I talk about that exact moment when it ended.

* The version at my grandma's funeral? Make sure you sign up at my church so Grandma won't be sad in Heaven when you die and go to Hell!
posted by headspace at 11:12 PM on August 21, 2013

I always had doubts about some of the far-fetched tales of Catholicism and Christianity, but I was very enthusiastic about the Sacrament of Confirmation in high school because I think I thought it was a measure of being a good person. Somewhere along the way between starting the confirmation process and finishing, I realized it didn't make someone a good person at all. I realized how much fucked up stuff was done by religious people and on behalf of religion. I think I started to realize I am gay and I realized how hurtful and hateful some of the teachings were.

The truth is, I was a skeptical child. I never fully believed in Santa Claus, even as a kid. It just seemed to far-fetched to me, but then logic made me question why so many people would lie about his existence all the time. As I got older, I think I realized that God can't exist because there's no justice and no order to life. Some people look at the world and see order and planning. I see randomness, chaos, coping and adapting. I'm a very firm atheist now and it's not something I think about. I don't care that most people I know and love believe in God.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:42 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I too "continue to feel like I cant belong." Was talking with my conservative pentocostal brother about this and he looked me straight in the eye and said "You belong to God, not to some church or pastor or creed." That really helped me, I think about that alot when I think about faith or belonging. Whatever church or group Im in I try to just go and be totally myself in that moment and everyone else, including God, is just going to have to deal with it.

Never lost faith as a child but now I have doubts and struggles regularly. The thing that often happens when I lose faith is that I go through a process of realizing that my god is "too small" and I rethink what "god" means.

Hope this helps.
posted by SyraCarol at 3:16 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

My parents were determinedly, rationally atheist. The wider family was Catholic. I was brought up without any religion, apart from the bits that rub off on you from school, or from Sunday-School-as-convenient-babysitter-and-peer-activity.

I went away to boarding school where the Catholic girls went off-site to Mass, I was impressed, started asking more about it, asked for instruction and got it, and was baptised at the age of about 11. Religion was a mystical experience for me. "everyone else seemed to actually be talking to Jesus and feel the presence of god" Man, I had no difficulty with that at all. I mean I still can sometimes look at the sky or stand in a beautiful landscape and get that 'I'm intrinsically part of all of this huge wheeling ordered/chaotic dynamism and my thoughts are part of it's voice and my body is part of its process and there are millions of millions of millions all their own me' feeling. Which is cool.

Catholicism defines what faith is - and it is compulsory - but has no problem with symbolism. Faith is not seen as rational, so in this the church neatly sidesteps some of the problems of reconciling belief and common sense. "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth." (Dei Filius 4: DS 3017) "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God." Catholics don't interpret the Old Testament literally at all.

Now since I converted, that meant I didn't grow up in Catholic culture, and I had no experience of Catholic hierarchy. As the only Catholic in my immediate family, I was free to kind of make up my own sort of Catholicism as long as I kept receiving the sacraments, which I was more than happy to do. I had some how understood the central tenet of the religion as "Love God, and do what you like." - probably something to do with the books an old Catholic lady lent me. I was a privileged little so-and-so.

So I used to go off to Mass and Confession and Communion and all that by myself, and I'd started on a high, because baptism gives you a clean slate, and after that there's nowhere to go but down. I began to get very worn down by the guilt of not being perfect all the time. Every single little thing you can be disinterested and self-sacrificing about, in Catholicism, is something you can kind of put in a virtual bank to help someone else - 'offering it up for the Holy Souls'. I'm not sure if this is still part of dogma. So that's wearing, and I began to feel it was too much to live up to. Like getting compassion fatigue. Also, as I got older, I couldn't see why you needed a formal structure to live right and hear that internal voice, given that priests are only human, just like the congregation. This certainly isn't part of dogma; I was told once, don't talk like that, glasseyes, a priest is NEVER stupid!

I think you need to have been properly indoctrinated to believe in the hierarchy for any length of time: even without the current scandals there's just obviously too much inherently wrong with it. Unless you've been brought up with an unquestionable belief in authority and also believe that women are inferior.

You can believe in religion as something that's metaphorical in its structure, that works using a particular language of symbolism, that provides a matrix for human community and collectivity and agreement about ethical behaviour, and emotional, psychic and material support for its members. It can be a system that provides self-belief and stable self-image, which are bases of mental health, because it establishes the parameters of what these should be. But then again, like all human systems, religion is liable to corruption and power plays. Many people I know who grew up Catholic suffered greatly from it's more oppressive manifestations. They haven't a good word to say about it.

I think this conflict between a personal relationship with transcendence and the hierarchy and dogma informs the religion for a lot of people still in the church though.
posted by glasseyes at 4:08 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Grew up Catholic, altar boy. I lost religion first, then lost faith.

I was serving at a wedding, and saw the best man give the officiant (the pastor) twenty bucks for *each* of the servers. Father Bell responded, "Oh, the boys will want to donate this as an offering" and pocketed it. I never saw a dime.

In college, I spent a lot of time at the campus Newman center. (as a commuter, I didn't have anywhere else to go without driving home). I sang in the choir, helped out with chores, etc. When I was having some dark times, I had the director administer the Myers Briggs test, because, hey, I wanted to find out about myself. After taking the test, I asked him multiple times about what the results meant, but he was always too busy flirting with donors' daughters to pay me any mind. So I lost religion.

I lost faith when, first year of college, I was in my shitty little apartment. Drunk on cheap red wine, I was on the can reading Plato's Republic and got to the part where he says "we need a religion, so the warriors won't be afraid to give up their lives for the Republic," and that sealed it right then.
posted by notsnot at 5:09 AM on August 22, 2013

Honestly, I can't remember ever believing.

I do remember as a kid being very bored in Church, which always pre-disposed me to dislike going. I did (and do) get bored sooner than most people - and it was once a week, when I had other things I'd have rather done at that age.

I also had a tendency to ask a lot of 'Why' questions, and not take 'Because x said so' as a reason - be it God or Mum/Dad that was x. Religion being what it was, a lot of the things I asked 'why' about did not have a justifiable reason that Mum was able to give me.

Eventually I succeeded in scheduling something at the same time as Sunday church (Tennis lessons, I think?), combined with being a difficult and annoying child when we went. We slowly stopped going - and even after I left home, they never went back to church regularly, as well as other aspects being lower.

So I guess, in a way, I managed to convert my Mum to being far less religious!
posted by Ashlyth at 5:13 AM on August 22, 2013

Not from a religious family, but got the standard indoctrination from being dropped off at Sunday school, etc. in either Lutheran or Methodist churches, and of course, a good dose of guilting which was customary manipulation tech for kids in the era of my toddler-ship. My folks had a pile of kids. In retrospect, shunting as many as possible off to church gave someone a short break.

I do recall at age 4 or 5, wondering how if I prayed for stuff, I didn't get it. Not once. Still, it times of misbehavior or laziness, I'd pray for snow days to not have to turn in my homework, or for time to turn back so I'd somehow dodge the trouble I knew I was in or going to be in.

By high school, I had determined that the lack of any results from religion made me an atheist. Then, girls got involved and in the south, most of the girls I was around loved the baby Jesus, so church was a chastity belt key, of sorts. So one last time, I gave it a shot. Nothing. Just delusional bullshit I eventually determined correlated to uselessness of religion. It sputtered for years, as I struggled to find some supernatural magic to embrace and when that proved again useless in daily life, my atheism hardened into its current form.

All along, it has been costly, sometimes lonely, and not infrequently something I try to dance around out of respect for people I like who need it to get through the night. I can't fault my religious friends too much because they are my friends, first, and religious, second. However, I never equivocate and will make sure at some point folks know I am an atheist. None of this agnostic bullshit for me. Hard boiled atheist. I often joke about how much I hate the baby jesus, because if it weren't for the exploitative followers of that psychotic fool, we'd be having cocktails on Mars now, having gotten through the Dark Ages a few centuries faster. It doesn't help his 'cause' that his main agents are such studies in hypocrisy. I mean, look at the Vatican. Riches HERE AND NOW, not in some future life. Party time for centuries for pope after pope. Starting wars, sponsoring genocides, rapid kids, burning witches, being packed with non-celibate gay men and preaching homophobia to this second, still. Looking the other way during some rather bleak times in human history. Not much consistency there.

Looking around now as a sober adult, my best observation remains the one I sensed when I was 4. God doesn't work. Can't spend it, eat it, solve normal problem with it. All you can do is change how you react to crap, and you an do that without god. It just doesn't work. Unless you wan to get rich on the backs of the poor and deluded.

Science, on the other hand, pretty much works. And when it doesn't, we fix it.
posted by FauxScot at 5:19 AM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can remember being 8 or 9 and sitting at mass waiting for the adults to finish with confession and I had this thought. If God knows everything we do or think, what is the point of confession? He already knows if we are really sorry about something, or if we are making it up for confession. Confession must be something the priests made up and has nothing to do with God. It was 20 years later before I finally cut all ties with organized religion, but that moment was where the doubt started.
posted by COD at 5:44 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm what some might call a "recovering Catholic."

My immediate family was somewhat ambivalent about religion, whereas the broader family was religious. I was made to go to church every Sunday with my mom, and my dad never went to church (except for weddings and funerals, my First Communion, Confirmation, and that sort of thing, and occasionally on Christmas). I often asked my mother why she and I had to go to church but my dad didn't. I never got a straight answer... "because he doesn't want to." "But doesn't God say you have to go to church unless you're sick?" "Yes." And that discrepancy never really sat well with me. Nowadays I think my mother went to church to have some time away from my father, but as a kid that wasn't apparent.

My parents put me in a Lutheran-run pre-K and then the Catholic school run by their parish for K and 1st grade, because they claim they didn't like the public schools in their neighborhood. As a kid, I kind of just went along with religion, because, well Mom says I have to, and my teachers say I have to, and God says I have to, and God is a higher authority than Mom and Dad or my teachers. I was bored in church and I didn't understand a lot of it, but I stuck it out because it was something I "had to" do.

Something about the way the school was treating me ("they don't know how to deal with smart kids" or something like that) made my parents pull me from the Catholic school and instead send me to a non-religious, hoity-toity, rich kid private school for 2nd grade, but I still had to go to the Catholic school for CCD classes -- this struck me as odd. If you don't like the school then why are you making me go there at all?

Then halfway through 3rd grade, we moved to what my parents deemed was a much better school district, and my parents pulled me out of the private school and put me into public school. We still went to church every Sunday, and I still had to go through CCD classes until confirmation. I started to understand a bit of what was going on; I liked the structure of the Mass and following along in the book, and because I followed along in the book, I knew what was going to happen and I stopped being bored by church. But some things didn't sit well with me -- the usual stuff like "if God loves us and can do anything, why does He let people be poor and hungry / let people beat the tar out of me in school" and that was met with the usual BS answers like "God has a plan/works in mysterious ways" and "Evil must exist in order for there to be good." Confession also bothered me. I'm not supposed to take communion if I haven't had confession. I remember asking in CCD if the blanket confession done in Mass before the communion ("I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, yada yada yada") not count and then you can take communion. Yes, I was told, that counted, and you could then take communion -- well, what's the point of seperately going to confession then? Shouldn't your sins be private between you and God? I know the priest isn't supposed to reveal what he hears in confession, but still...

I went through the motions until Confirmation. Our church fired or reassigned (I don't remember) a priest who was extremely popular and well-liked by the congregation and so we stopped going to church as much. Often, my mother went to church by herself. By late in high school, I had stopped going to church at all, except, like my dad, for weddings, funerals, and on Christmas.

In college I learned of the word "agnostic" and started calling myself that. I wasn't sure I could apply the label "atheist" to myself, because I wasn't sure I truly didn't believe that any deity or deities existed. It was just that none of the major organized religions didn't resonate with me (though I had not been and still have not been to a service of any religion other than Catholicism, really, not counting weddings of friends).

After college, I drove around a lot to help with being depressed. I started seeing nature -- mountains, oceans, that sort of thing, and concluded that there must be some higher power creating these things because the scientific processes that brought about their existence are just too coincidental. (Kind of a "God created science and evolution" type of view, though I definitely don't see "God" as what's taught by Catholicism.)

When the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal broke, I remember my mother calling me and telling me that she was no longer going to church because she could not in good conscience support or give money to a religion that allowed its supposed leaders to act in such a manner -- they are supposed to be role models for the community. I agreed with her.

Religion does teach some good things -- basically don't be a jerk to other people and treat others how you would want to be treated -- but you can have those kinds of morals and not go to church, in my mind. I think as long as I'm moral I'll be OK. I definitely do NOT share the church's views on things like gay marriage and birth control.

This past year or so, I've been going through some rough times and I've started, sort of, "praying" again but it sounds like I'm talking to myself as though I'm talking to someone else. I'm not sure it helps but I don't think it hurts. I'm not going to go to church or anything like that... I do think a person's religion/spirituality is their own business, really.

I'm still questioning things as far as religion goes, and I think the questioning is a lifelong thing. Science, on the other hand, is provable and convincing.
posted by tckma at 7:09 AM on August 22, 2013

I'd call myself an "amicably-lapsed Catholic" today - I don't consider myself Catholic, but don't think Catholicism a a religion is necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. It just ain't how I roll is all.

And ironically, it was my own fairly devout mother who may have set the seeds for that - she's devout, but she also knows that what works for everyone else is different and is just as good for them, and she in fact appreciates that, and actually sort of digs the beauty you can find in other religions' perspectives on things. It's always been that way - I had friends in other denominations and/or faiths as a kid, and sometimes they'd ask me over for slumber parties or whatever on Saturday nights, and mom would say sure, just go to church with them (or don't go, however they rolled) and sometimes if I went to another kind of church she'd ask what it was like, out of a pure sense of curiousity and wonder and appreciation (not "wow, how weird that they do things that different way," more "huh, how cool it is that we people have so many different ways of worship"). The way she thinks of it, she told me once, is that we all believe the same things, just in really really different ways. So I was always pretty open to "this one faith here is just one perspective on The Way It Is."

And that just all laid the groundwork for moments like, reading a passage from C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle where a righteous foreign soldier ended up in Aslan's country even though he didn't worship Aslan - and Aslan explained that that was because it didn't matter so much what name you used when you worshipped as it did how you lived. Or being in seventh grade and suddenly realizing, with a start, that the two Jewish kids in my class who were missing school because of the High Holy Days would have an absence on their records - but my religion's big holidays, Christmas and Easter, were days when we didn't have school anyway, and realizing "hey, that's not fair to their religion". Or the week in Sunday school when I was eight and our teacher suddenly chucked the usual catechism study and got all excited talking to us about the investigation into the Shroud of Turin that was going on back then, but she was getting all excited about how the scientific inquiry part of it was important and how carbon dating worked and how annoyed she was that they weren't gonna let them do that.

So that all ultimately left me with a perspective that "this faith you were raised in...that's just a perspective on truth. Finding things out and coming to your own conclusions based on that, and being true to those conclusions in your own self, is what you're supposed to do." And also - and thank you, Sister Steven, for being so gung-ho about the science bit - science and religion can work together on things, and in fact should - because science deals with the facts and the natural law and religion deals with something else entirely. So I'm not Catholic, although I do reach back to some Catholic doings - but I've also drawn from Jewish religious commentary, Sufi poetry, and Hindu thought and neo-Pagan thought in my own practice.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:13 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was raised in the Episcopal Church and even participated as the Episcopalian version of an altar boy for several years (something I was told to do, not something I sought out of a fervent belief in the Anglican church). It was probably in middle school, but definitely into high school when I began to question the universality of Christianity. I never really doubted Jesus, but I recall comparing the different faiths around the world, and for all that one might claim to be THE faith, ultimately, only one could BE a one faith, and by what authority can any of those rationally assert that it is that one. Similarly to other posts above, I also considered the contradictions of why a good person must go to hell or why bad things happened in a world where an all powerful god could stop them, and if he did not stop them, then that implied it was a conscious choice to allow them to happen.

My mind strayed toward a more deist belief, or at least, a perspective that while there was a higher authority because "Someone or something HAS to be responsible for existence...something cannot come from nothing..." and with that, also the perspective that religion was very much a human creation.

I was a point where I brainstormed an idea to draft a science fiction novel based off the Bible, which pretty much established an alien cause or source behind the incidents of every book within the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Ultimately, though, I chose to re-explore Christianity, and to do so from a rational perspective. I engaged with what evidence or logical conclusions existed and in the end decided that there was a satisfactory explanation or foundation to plant my flag of faith upon. I won't go into those specific reasons, as I think they are personal to me and may not have the same importance to others. However, while I call myself a Christian, I still am not quite 100% sure where I would fall on the denomination chart (somewhere between Episcopalian and Baptist). One aspect of my re-engagement is the examination of what Christ actually said (or at least is recorded to have said), versus what two thousand years of what other people have claimed he said. My earlier rejection was based primarily on the latter, not the former.

I do think that rejection of what one is taught can be a paramount step to building a stronger faith and belief, and it really depends on whether one truly wants the supernatural in their lives or not, if they are to develop that firmer faith.
posted by Atreides at 8:34 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was raised Christian, and up until around 16 had definitely "drank the Kool-Aid." Participated in church, attended mission trips, played in a christian band, and even wrote essays in school about my faith. But if there's one thing my dad taught me just a little more than religion was critical thinking.

Around 16 I started really thinking about the academic side of my beliefs...philosophy, theology, historical context for the Bible, science (i.e. evolution vs. creationism, etc...). The "gateway" book that really changed everything for me was On Being a Christian, by Hans Kung. After reading that, I realized that "Christianity" wasn't just one thing, as I had been taught, but was many things to many people, and that it can and should change with time!

After that, my brain did the rest. Slowly, the more I researched the historical foundations of the Bible and the Historical Jesus, I realized that the Bible was a completely different book than I had been taught. This wasn't a premeditated "canon," this was a series of texts that were assembled with an agenda and purpose after the fact. The Gospels were no more a historical account of Jesus than Genesis was of the creation of Earth.

Theological doubts developed quickly. The concept of God just didn't make sense anymore, contradictions in Christian theology were commonly swept under the rug or ignored by most church-goers, which pissed me off. It seemed like nobody really wanted to know or understand their beliefs, they just blindly accepted traditional thinking. And when I found contemporary theologians with new, radical interpretations (Paul Tillich) there was little to no support in exploring those concepts that I found in any church I attended.

I remember the moment vividly. I was 20, middle of the night, listening to John Cage, reading Nietzsche's The Antichrist, and I read the words "Faith is not wanting to understand." Boom. All I wanted was to understand, and it was clear I would never, ever, receive support for that through the Church. So I apologized to Jesus, and made a pact with myself then and there that I would never be a Christian again.

For me, I've found comfort in my resolve. I feel like I gave those beliefs a fair shake, did my homework, explored, and tried to make it work. In the end, I have come to the place I'm at through study and reflection, and even though sometimes I feel "guilty" for not providing my kids the same religious / spiritual ground that I had, I know that my job is to do what my dad did for me -- teach my boys to use their head, they'll figure the rest out.
posted by Piano Raptor at 8:42 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh wow. I could bang on about this at length but I will try to keep it relatively brief and to the point.

I was raised in England, as a Church of England Christian. I believed for all the usual reasons kids believe things they are taught. You trust adults. You do not understand the world or how reality works, so fantastical explanations seem, hey, why not, as good as any other. Especially if they are designed to make you feel protected, and that there is hope and comfort in the face of the more scary and painful aspects of life. You believe as a child. And then, if you are at all given to deep thought, a love of truth over comfort, and a desire to look life full in the face, you ask questions. You notice that many, if not most elements of your creed do not seem fair, or reasonable. If you are a Christian you ask how, in the world of all that is sane and moral, the notion of the Jesus story stands up in any way. Sending a "son" to one little area of the world - not even the most advanced one of the time - and having him tortured and scapegoated for our sins? And somehow this "saves" us? From a fate instituted by the very same God who is "saving" us from it? And we know this because of a slack handful of ancient scribblings written at least thirty years aft the events they describe were purported to have occurred? You start to detect a whiff of collective madness about the whole thing. A smell you later come to recognise as the smell of desperation and a stubborn refusal to think.

And you watch the way you and your fellow believers behave. You kneel. You praise. You worship, like a bunch of wretched, snivelling gimps. You importune and wheedle. You crave indulgence and consideration from an invisible thing. You sing songs to it. You tell it how great it is and act like the most revolting sycophants. And it all starts to seem like the behaviour of the oppressed and cowardly before a tyrant, rather than how one would behave towards a benevolent parent. It starts to seem contemptible and shameful. You want to shake your fellow believers. You want to tell them to have some shame, some dignity, some courage, some independence. You want to yell "Get up off your damned knees".

And then you learn about science. Astronomy reveals the mind-bursting scale of the universe, and that makes our religions seem as laughable as if a culture of bacteria in one tiny corner of a single petri dish had decided that it was specially favoured in the world, and that something existed that cared about it, considered its wishes, acted on its behalf. And you learn about biology, chemistry and physics, and you start to understand that our origin was not magical, but the result of physical processes taking place over literally unimaginable expanses of time. And then you read philosophy, and you look at the famous and not-so-famous arguments and apologetics for the existence of god. And, if you are intellectually honest, you see not only how flawed but how tragically weak they are, in both senses of the word.

And then you look at history, and the current situation in the world and in human societies, and you start to see just how terribly religion has hampered human progress and development, never mind the heinous cruelties and repressions that have been, and are being, perpetrated because of it. And you realise that this is happening in the name of a bunch of absolute nonsense borne of primitive human fear, need, weakness and ignorance.

And then, eh, you become a fire-breathin', Dawkins-lovin' militant atheist. Well, you do if you're me. :-)
posted by Decani at 10:08 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am not from a family that worships, but for as long as I can remember, I have always had a problem with the idea that some Big Brother up there is listening to (and selectively answering/choosing not to answer) our prayers. And relatedly, the idea that God would give some people "blessed" lives while other, really good people suffered a lot.

What really sealed the deal for me is when, around age 12, my very best friend was suddenly and inexplicably near death. My mom asked for a mass to be said for her. No donation? No mass. I could never forgive that.
posted by karbonokapi at 10:33 AM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Disconnecting from Christianity was a very conscious process for me, but very protracted. I remember feeling lots of doubts starting from the age of 6 or 7. I noticed contradictions in the bible, and the explanations I got when I asked questions about them didn't feel satisfying. And I noticed that some of the behavior of this god we were praising was the sort of mean, spiteful, petty stuff that would get me scolded at home. It seemed that god could get away with breaking god's rules because god got to make up the rules. Not fair.

Eventually I realized that, when I recited the Apostles' Creed during the church service, I didn't REALLY believe any of it. For years I tried to argue myself into believing it, but my nonbelief just kept getting stronger, until eventually it was strong enough that I felt I could rely on it.

One of the dealbreakers for me was the concept of original sin. That idea just seemed repulsive and wrong. I actually used to cross my fingers during that part of the creed.

But the biggest single thing that had been alienating me from religion all along, and that finally made me feel secure in my doubt, was that damn capital H. If god = He, then implicitly and often explicitly, all the shes in the church are less worthy than all the hes. No matter how good I might be, I could never aspire to be quite as good as the boys. How many thousands of times did I hear the god that we were all supposed to worship called "He," acknowledged to be inherently masculine? Every single time my female self heard that, I felt diminished, devalued, pushed a little farther away from anything that might be holy. I'm making it my life's work to try to repair most of the psychic damage.
posted by Corvid at 10:37 AM on August 22, 2013

I suppose I was an atheist before I ever knew what the word meant. The concept of God never made sense to me, even as a small child. I was told there was one, and my family used to go to church on Sundays, and I was apparently baptized, but my parents weren't overbearing about it. I was not forced into any sort of worldview. They more or less let me decide my own views from the start, and I'm not even really clear on their beliefs now. I don't think either attend church anymore.

I do remember that when I tried to pray as a child, it always felt fake and pretend and I sort of knew that nothing was really happening. The descriptions people gave of their religious experiences, and how preachers on TV would claim that God spoke to them and will show you the way and so on, it always rang hollow. What did they mean? He never "spoke" to me. Why not?

No one could ever give a satisfying answer to my questions, either. I guess they were kind of hard--how do you know? Has he ever talked to you? Are people that believe in other religions wrong? My best friend was Jewish--was he going to go the Hell? As I got older the questions were a little more incisive, and all the answers were so wishy-washy and/or defensive. And it was considered rude to ask about it...bizarre!

It was hard for me to believe people were so heavily invested in this. I eventually stopped giving people the benefit of the doubt that they knew something I didn't. It was just something they did, and they liked to do it --that was the only way I could explain it to myself. I actually still have a lot of difficulty accepting that people really believe this stuff deep down.
posted by Hoopo at 11:50 AM on August 22, 2013

It's astonishing the things you never notice as a kid.

I grew up in a Bible Belt church with everything but the snakes (and there were rumors about them). Speaking in Tongues, Prophecy and Interpretation, Laying on of Hands, Healings, Casting out of Demons (personal experience, true story brah).

One night, I was about 10 or 11, Wednesday night my parents who played/sang in the church band were rehearing. I was outside playing, my younger siblings inside probably fitfully sleeping in the pews. I was walking around outside the church and saw heat lightening for the first time. Yeah, I was a kid and had never noticed before that this is A Thing that happens in the Carolinas.

Of course, I assumed The Rapture had come. Fire, no heat or sound? Amazing pre-Lucas special effects? And left me behind. We were post-Tribulationists, so this was Not A Good Thing. In fact, is was a about the worst thing possible. Everyone I loved had been "raptured" but not me.

I ran inside to find my parents singing and playing respectively piano and bass and my younger bother and sister duly asleep on a pew.

That wasn't the precise moment I lost faith...that would come several years later when I realized a God that did not condone getting high or laid had some major drawbacks as a subject of worship.

But, ontologically and epistemologically, it was the defining moment when I realized that God, as my peers and betters had portrayed him, did not in fact work the way they said. At least, not in any way comprehensible to me.

And looking back on that statement and thinking of the Book of Job...fuck God. He could at least have given him a heads up.
posted by digitalprimate at 2:33 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may find it helpful to go through the exercises in the great little book called "Writing the Sacred Journey" by Elizabeth J. Andrew. The book was written to help you do just what you want to do -- remember and reevaluate spiritual and religious feelings from childhood.

All the best to you in your explorations!
posted by rw at 7:10 AM on August 23, 2013

I would love to hear your stories of childhood doubt, and any insight into the process of investigating your own story of faith, emotional development, things like that.

I had pretty much the exact same experience as you. It was impossible to taste, touch, see, hear, or measure God. Then I became convinced that it was not consistent with reason to place my belief in something with those characteristics because, by definition in that system, there could be no such "something." Merely because others were convinced it existed didn't change that because I'd accepted as true the materialist proposition. My experience differs from yours in that, in my mid-twenties, I reverted back to Christianity--but not after having been a pretty dogmatic scientific materialist from about the age 11-12, getting more and more convinced of the atheist position as I grew older.

For me, while it's a very safe and comfortable set of principles to live by, the materialist worldview couldn't fully explain my adult world. The self-evident proposition that 'if it's not measurable, then it doesn't exist' was no longer satisfactory to account for the supernatural. Turning to the various metaphysical or immaterial propositions, I found Christ to be most convincing and best able to explain that other half of the world that couldn't be tasted, touched, seen, heard, or measured. (Incidentally, I became convinced of truth claims of the Catholic religion--and I wonder if this is because I was raised in a rather Bible-thumpy, doctrine-less sort of Christianity as a child? The answer to any perceived intrusion of science into faith was, 'well, then science is wrong.' So you have this exponentially-developing realm of physical sciences that fills entire libraries, but then the faith side is like, 'it's all right there in that book on grandma's table.' For me, the Catholics weren't like that, and their metaphysical side was just as elaborate and well-developed as any form of material science, so I'll wager that was what was so attractive initially after being an atheist.)

My faith and my reason are both stronger for coming to realize, as an adult--and not as a 12-year old--what the limits of both philosophies are. While the division between the two is never clean or pretty (and there are many areas or human life where both philosophies lay claim to competency, see generally subjects metafilter doesn't do well), they're not irreconcilable. Faith has its limits, as does scientific reasoning, and both are powerful tools for experiencing the world as a thinking and feeling human being.
posted by resurrexit at 12:02 PM on August 23, 2013

I was Catholic. I wanted to be an altar boy (possibly a priest). I was told that I couldn't. That was it for me.
posted by Nyx at 2:57 PM on August 26, 2013

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