Am I preaching to the choir? A question about the journey into faith.
March 3, 2016 4:55 PM   Subscribe

To those who converted into a religion or identify as a "born again" Christian (going from no faith/not sure -> faith) what was that journey like?

I am an atheist. I was Baptized (Italian) and was technically raised Roman Catholic (not practicing) by going through the Catholic School System. I think (?) I "lost my faith" at 11? I still had to go to church at school, and would occasionally challenge my religion teacher(s)'s authority. I don't even think I went from faith to agnosticism... I think I might have gone from agnosticism to atheism.

Once that happened I knew I'd never go back to believing in something like god or an afterlife again. My inability to believe in something isn't even really a choice... I just don't believe.

However: I married a Minister's son (now an atheist but we don't talk about it with family), I love many people of many faiths. I am fascinated by people that do believe. Often, they are people I really admire.

My mom always was vocal about identifying as an atheist when I was a kid. Interesting enough, by the time she reached 50 she started believing in mediums and then for awhile believed in "something" and now I *think* believes in god. She seems comforted by this but I cannot see it happening to me.

If you have gone from faithless to faith: how did it work for you?

1. When did it happen? Was it an "a-ha" moment? A gradual understanding? Did an event in your life trigger it?

2. What did it feel like? Did the world change for you?

3. How "certain" are you in your belief? (I hate to ask, but like, if you had to quantify in percentage?)

4. Are you bothered by the thought of people you love *not* believing? I suspect that my husband's family understands that my family is for all intents and purpose, secular, and I think he would say this bothers him spiritually. That makes me sad.

Any other thoughts you may have about this topic: please share!
posted by Dressed to Kill to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

No, not really. People are on their own path and it's not my job to judge it. I don't think anyone can change anyone else's beliefs. I don't feel an obligation to try to get people to believe anything or nothing or my particular set of beliefs. You do you.

I'm much more interested in behaviors than beliefs. You can be a complete jerk who knows every bible verse. You can be a kind and good person who doesn't hold any spiritual designs. I can peaceably coexist with someone who doesn't share my beliefs without feeling a moment's urge to proselytize to them.
posted by 26.2 at 5:41 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Appreciate your open heart to discuss these things. Faith and family differences can often cause a lot of heartaches.
I'll try to answer your points 1-4 and then some other thoughts.
1. When I was about 18, it was a long process with many and various people involved. During high school one of my English teachers was rabidly anti-faith. He made a particular habit of singling out students who identified as believers and asking them pointed (put-down) type questions and mocking their faith. I did not think he was accurate in his anti-God rants, but I really did not have much to counter it with. Just after HS I enlisted in the military and was given a pocket New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs. I'd never read much of anything in the bible and used the mandatory break times during basic training and after to read through it several times. I met a fellow-soldier who talked to me about his own relationship with God and that challenged my own thinking.
2. It didn't particularly "feel" like anything, but I was soon very aware of great differences in what I understood, particularly about passages of the bible. During high school I'd sung in a Christmas season performance of Handel's Messiah. The songs are from various passages of scripture talking about Jesus as the Messiah. I'd practiced and performed that several times, but after coming to faith, the songs just opened up in my mind. I understood who it was we were singing about for the first time. And other bible passages suddenly just made sense and were communicating to me in ways far beyond anything like I'd known before.
3. Belief certainty: I'd say something like 90-10, meaning most of the time I'm as certain as I can be, but there are continual challenges to that belief coming from things I read or hear about. The vastness and "age" of the universe contrasted with the creation accounts in scripture, the multiplicity of "faiths" which all seem to take different points of scripture to emphasize (or ignore), and also times when I am worn out physically and mentally so that few things make sense are all times which cause me to doubt rather than have faith.
4. Family systems are like fishbowls we grow up in. Sometimes we don't grow, we just absorb the surrounding values and wonder why everyone else does not "get it" like our family does. I'm not bothered that quite a few in my extended family network are not people of faith. I try to respectfully talk with all of them to understand what they do believe and why they believe that way.

I think you should try to examine what you do "believe". What are accurate statements you can make about how things are?

And then I'd encourage you to just sit down and read through the gospel of John and ask yourself what was it about Jesus that encouraged people to believe in him?
May your journey be sweet!
posted by tronec at 5:53 PM on March 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I don't have any personal thoughts on this, but you would probably really enjoy The dash Toast dot net's Convert Series--interviews by Mallory Ortberg, one of the site's founders (and a minister's daughter) with people who've converted from a variety of religious backgrounds (including none) to a variety of faiths (including none). It's going to include at some point an account from the site's other founder, Nicole Cliffe, who recently became a Christian and has been intermittently vocal about her new faith in some places on the site and on twitter.
posted by kickingthecrap at 6:00 PM on March 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'm Roman Catholic and went through 16 years in their system (though 8 years were in "Christian Brother" schools, they're pretty loose). I drifted away during college and since came back, though now I say I am a Christian first, Catholic second. Obviously I am a theist. Now for your questions:
1) My life has been pretty weird and to come to terms with it all I have pretty much had to start from first principles to decide most things. So no "a-ha", no trigger. Culmination of a lot of thought, reading, and a decision that not everything can be explained by confirmation bias. If you read (or read summaries of) the C. S. Lewis books "Mere Christianity", "Miracles" and "The Problem of Pain", plus Smullyan's Is God a Taoist you will get a general idea of my journey.
2) What changed for me was a sense of meaning. Life has meaning, and love and honesty and service and a teleological (note the spelling) view of the infinite universe.
3) To the best of my ability to believe in anything I believe in point 2 of my answer. I believe it would be easier for me to debate my position than to play devil's advocate for the opposite. This is not to say that there aren't a lot of very, very poorly thought out opinions on God, but you asked how sure I am of my view.
4) It doesn't bother me what others believe, but it bothers me if they believe self-contradictory things, because that makes it difficult to communicate with them and respect them intellectually. I actually participate in various church functions and find it difficult to be completely honest about my beliefs. But I'm not leaving the church unless they kick me out (:->), so I just try to be polite and limited in my sharing.
posted by forthright at 6:41 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am an atheist -- baptized Roman Catholic, but I've never had a memory of personally believing anything I heard in church, and when first I heard the term "atheist" in college suddenly realized that's what I was. Not anti-theist (against religion/god-concept) but atheist -- I simply don't believe in a god or supernatural higher power, and never have, and that lack of belief really doesn't affect me or my life in any way.

However, I very, very much enjoyed reading the autobiographical books written by Anne Lamott that, among many many other things, discuss her journey to Christianity. It is not my path and never could be, but I appreciated reading about her experience and how she view life through that lens.

You may enjoy them as well.
posted by erst at 7:29 PM on March 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm the son of lapsed Catholics. They sent me to evangelical and evangelical-adjacent schools growing up because I was not very socially adept and the schools were much smaller, and for a couple of years in high school I believed the full young-earth thing and was very happy. Deconversion happened fast—in the time it took my dad to off-handedly say, while he and I were out shopping I was talking about some bit of young-earth culture or another, "Do you really believe that?"

I realized I didn't, or that I wasn't sure, or that certainty was the important thing and I didn't have it in high-enough quantities to stay in the culture. The doubt came all at once, but I floated very slowly out of the culture and was agnostic through college.

I'm a Catholic now. It's been a very tentative and conscious process, either as a reaction to my time in high school or because I'm just not cut out for simple faith. In short: I failed, unmistakably and inalterably, for the first time in my life, and realized that living by my own intuition and according to the culture I'd grown up in was not working at all for me. I read a lot—theology, the big mid-20th-century Catholic novelists, popular-audience books about the saints. I realized (or decided, or accepted) that the Catholic worldview—specifically the ideas of sin and mercy and reconciliation—and the Catholic infrastructure—specifically a hierarchy for me to submit to, and not a strictly personal relationship with God—accorded better with reality as I understood it than the other things I'd tried.

Honestly I would much prefer believing because I feel something I don't feel a need to intellectualize, like I did in high school and like a lot of very saintly people I know. It doesn't seem in the cards for me. Frequently the existence of the supernatural feels no more plausible to me than it did two years ago; if anything, I'm just less certain that I'm able to accurately perceive what's going on around me.

Because I am so unsure I can't give you a percentage, or anything, but I will say that what I appreciate about Catholicism is that it can be very much about doing things rather than feeling things. (Liturgical things, not good-deeds things.) Worship is not tied to my emotions, which can be pretty flat on good days, so neither is the fundamental truth of the thing; if you're a very badly catechized evangelical like I was it can sometimes feel like Christ's resurrection is contingent on whether the praise songs moved you, but the Catholic church exists on the earth, celebrating the mass, regardless of how I feel about it at a given moment. There are a lot of very good Protestants, but I was a terrible one and I need that hedge against apathy and self-centeredness. I'm obliged to go to mass, to confess, to participate in the eucharist, to fast during lent; sometimes it "works" and sometimes it doesn't. The point, for me, is that in either case I go back the next Sunday.
posted by Polycarp at 10:00 PM on March 3, 2016 [10 favorites]

1. When did it happen? Was it an "a-ha" moment? A gradual understanding? Did an event in your life trigger it?

I'd describe it as a gradual understanding that led to an "a-ha" moment. I was raised Catholic but was pretty much apathetic towards religion. Then in my early 20s I experienced this hunger for something deeper. Out of curiousity, I read the Bible (KJV) cover to cover. Twice. First as a curious skeptic (who cringed at all the absurdities I was demanded to accept in faith), and then as an earnest seeker of Truth (this time using Jewish and Christian study guides to re-interpret each verse). I read books about Islamic theology. I read books and journals of devout Catholics/Christians and converts (Flannery O'Connor, Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Marilynne Robinson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, etc.). I prayed for guidance and humility in my journey. I talked to a lot of people about their faith (and lack of). Eventually, everything just sort of clicked... and keeps clicking. I've discovered that the journey never ends--it just deepens and becomes richer.

2. What did it feel like? Did the world change for you?

It felt jarring, transformative, cathartic. Re-committing myself to Catholicism shook me out of my moral complacency and set the bar very high. I saw my life as this strange and wonderful gift I don't deserve, and felt an urgency to live it as fully, as selflessly, as responsibly as possible. I read somewhere, "...adherence to a religion is not the end of the road, but only the beginning of a very long and sometimes very rough road."

It also shattered my assumption that faith is just another emotional crutch, a security blanket--because sustaining it demands a commitment of one's entire being. Every day, for the rest of one's life. This quote from The Seventh Seal describes it with a touch of pathos: "Faith is a torment, did you know that? It is like loving someone in the dark, who never comes, no matter how loudly you call."

3. How "certain" are you in your belief? (I hate to ask, but like, if you had to quantify in percentage?)


4. Are you bothered by the thought of people you love *not* believing?

I wouldn't say "bothered", as I accept that all of us are walking very, very different paths and how we navigate the world is often shaped by our very specific experiences so it's not in my place to judge nor impose my beliefs. The most I can do is represent my faith the best way I can and share my peace with others.
posted by tackypink at 10:14 PM on March 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

I was an atheist till I was about 20. I was baptised as a Christian 9 years ago, at the age of 22, and left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church two years ago. So I sort have had three conversion moments: atheism to theism at 19-20, theism to Christianity a year or so later, and Anglican to Catholic a few years later.

1. I can't really separate out the "a-ha" moments from the gradual understanding. If not for the fact that my understanding had gradually shifted from relativism to moral realism, and from moral realism to theism, I wouldn't have understood the "a-ha" moments the way I did. I read a lot of CS Lewis, Chesterton, and Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell. I argued a lot with my theist friends. I had some strange moments in empty churches, in movies, and when walking down the street. I experimented with prayer. I don't know exactly how those elements combined to get me to the point where I realised that my atheism had become completely insincere, a pose I was adopting for the purposes of an argument that I was having, and my whole mind was in agreement with what my theist friend was saying. But that's what happened.

The intellectual story is similar to many people's. I abandoned moral relativism very quickly, almost as soon as I had thought about that question seriously, and couldn't find a justification for moral realism that made sense to me other than God. After I figured out that I'd stopped being atheist or even agnostic, I did some more experimental praying and some reading of religious books - some Hindu scriptures, some parts of the Bible. I read the New Testament cover to cover for the first time.

Christianity was a much more bowled-off-my-feet experience than theism. I vividly remember sitting on the staircase in my family home, halfway through the crucifixion narrative in the Gospel of Mark, and understanding that I already believed it and that the rest of my mental and moral and emotional furniture had completely reorganised itself around this person.

2. That makes it sound like everything changed, but my day-to-day life and thinking didn't change enormously. I still believe most of the things I believed before, about morality and the physical universe. My emotional temperature goes up and down. But I would say that my frame of reference for understanding these things has changed.

3. I'm as certain as I am about anything that God exists, and that Christianity is, in some sense, true. I'm less certain about the validity of my current understanding of what these things mean; my ideas about what God really is or what Christ really did are pretty raw and provisional and I expect them to change over time. I can also, as an intellectual exercise, hold open the possibility that atheism is true -- in the same way that I can hold open the possibility that the whole universe is an illusion that I'm dreaming. That is, I understand the arguments and see their potential plausibility but I can't now imagine adopting either as my practical worldview. I wouldn't say I was 100% certain about anything - including that the universe isn't a dream etc - but I'm as certain as I get, i.e. very.

4. About people I love not believing - well, I pray for my atheist friends and family in much the same way that I pray for my theist and Christian friends and family. I assume I don't know where any of them are going in life or what's good for them, but that God does, and it's not really my job to figure out their path. I admit that it bothers me a lot when someone I love does something I feel is wrong but I don't feel the same about their beliefs about God and the universe in the abstract. I only worry about the one or two people I love who act, day to day, as if the world is a small and frightening place, governed by the need to compete with others and win. Others, who are atheists and who live as if the world is an open and generous place that is basically governed by love, don't worry me at all.
posted by Aravis76 at 10:55 PM on March 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I went from no faith to evangelicalism in college, to agnosticism in grad school to liberal (politically) orthodox Christianity (Episcopalianism) 5 years back or so.

Arguments played no role in moving me in or out of faith. I'm a philosopher of religion, fwiw. My return to religion was deliberate. I thought I'd be happier as a believer, and I started going to masses and eventually I started having religious experiences again. I am happier. Though I'm tentative in my belief--I'm very far from certain I'm right.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:49 AM on March 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

And some of the best people I know are Christians. These are people who have fought for justice and peace for years and years. They'd fit right in politically at MF.

How certain am I in my belief that Christianity is correct? Slightly more likely true than false.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:52 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Previously: Converting from atheism to religion.
posted by wildblueyonder at 2:23 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

4. Are you bothered by the thought of people you love *not* believing?

Yes, but not because people who don't have faith can't be good people or they make me uncomfortable or anything like that.

I'm assuming your husband's family has reasonably mainstream Christian beliefs. Which is basically that there's one true God and only one way to have a relationship with that God and any other belief will land you in hell for all eternity. Even if that's not objectively true, that's what many (most?) Christians believe. I'm also not exactly sure what hell is, but I think we can agree that it's worse than heaven. So, if Christianity is correct then anyone who doesn't share that belief is going to have a very unpleasant afterlife. If you believe that, then how could you not be saddened by the thought of a loved one suffering that fate? Doesn't mean you love that person any less, doesn't mean you bible bash them at every opportunity, but yeah, it bothers me.
posted by pianissimo at 4:12 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

in the question you mention being italian. i'm unsure where you live. i suppose you must live in the usa if you're asking for social guidance on this site. but it seems worth mentioning that the description of "mainstream christian" above is not an accurate portrayal of much northern european christianity. for example, this bbc article for uk school children says that "many" christians are universalists (ie believe heaven is for more than just christians). and here is a table showing that while 50% of irish and american christians believe in hell no other country exceeds 30% and some are below 10%.
posted by andrewcooke at 7:16 AM on March 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

"born again" Christian (going from no faith/not sure -> faith)

Just as note, "born again" has a narrower meaning than just going from not having faith to having faith. For instance, I went from atheism to becoming a Christian but I would never characterize myself as "born again." For me, "born again" clearly signals the evangelical theology that's really focused around a particular ritual acceptance of Christ as your savior, etc, etc, in a single moment and that just doesn't describe all Christian experience.

1. When did it happen? Was it an "a-ha" moment? A gradual understanding? Did an event in your life trigger it?

For me, no, it was very slow. It was not an a-ha moment. I went from being a pretty convinced atheist, then agnostic who nevertheless argued for respect for religious people (because like you I had family and friends who were religious and I didn't think they were idiots) to being today an admittedly-heretical form of Christian. I expressed this first first through Quaker theology, which I came into contact with by working for 7 years at a Quaker institution. Now I attend a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church and find it a fine place to be Quaker-like in the absence of a nearby Friends meeting. There was no single moment. I wouldn't have identified this way until I was in my late 30s. It had to do with a gradual move toward, gravitation toward, religious communities, and with times where I was thinking about moral authority, the importance of having some kind of framework or structure against which to question and measure my beliefs, the centrality of the Christian story in my life experience, etc. I first embraced Quakerism through an agnostic social-justice perspective, which is a fine way to be a Quaker, but I found in the end that I really resonated with fundamental ideas in Christianity and that, even if I am as far from a literalist as you can get, use them as a way to access thinking about the world beyond materialism and as one very important influence on personal moral thinking.

2. What did it feel like? Did the world change for you?

No...that would make it sound really dramatic. I would say simply that I felt increasingly at home.

3. How "certain" are you in your belief? (I hate to ask, but like, if you had to quantify in percentage?)

I often say that religion isn't really a set of beliefs, as I used to think and as I think many nonreligious people think, but a practice. Or a path. It can also be a community. So I don't dwell a lot on "beliefs;" I don't think belief is at all the most important aspect of religion. I hold almost all my beliefs lightly and tentatively, (including all the ones that have nothing to do with religion). I have more conviction about basic moral principles (compassion, justice, love) but "beliefs" are not a big part of my thinking. I have a low degree of certainty about anything. I think the world's religions are human constructs, and suspect that whatever I eventually learn about the divine, if anything, will be pretty surprising and totally different from whatever my limited, narrow-perspective, human-delivered earthly understanding could provide. So I guess I would say I am 0% certain in any "belief," but about 90% certain that a religious practice is really important to my internal life, moral development, community membership and social action.

4. Are you bothered by the thought of people you love *not* believing?

Not at all. Everyone has to find their own way to understand the world. I am only sad when I see that people can't entertain the thought that others might make different choices and that that's acceptable. That said, I get a special enjoyment from Christian holidays because I know that other Christians and I are locating and sharing a specific kind of meaning in them that's just not part of those holidays if you don't add that dimension.

I think it might be interesting to dissect with your husband whether he's sad about your family's secularism because his faith is saying that they will be separated from him for all eternity and punished in an everlasting lake of fire, or just because it's something that you don't share like the read on a holiday, and so there is some division between you that means you can't feel united in perspective in a particular way that it can be nice to enjoy, especially at times of ritual. I don't think we can answer that one, or know which perspective your husband's family is coming from without knowing them specifically.

My answers may be totally unuseful to you because I tend not to fit any of the boxes people tend to have in mind when they say "Christian," "evangelical," "Catholic," etc. The truth is that I think in their heart of hearts, most believers don't. Most believers who think about things at all do have an internal conversation with their religious life, their internal moral compass, their church structure and its dogma. I find that few people actually "toe the line" and accept the letter of religious dogma wholly. Most people - Catholics too - can name a few questions they have or points where they disagree with the church. In the end, the big buckets serve only to aggregate us to discuss religious blocs. But I hope that, if nothing else, it shows that there are a lot of individual ways to be religious, and that it's best not to make assumptions about anyone's religious life, beliefs, and motivations based only on their external labels, but really by asking them specifically what they believe or care about, why, and how that makes them think about others. I think communication is the only way to do that. it's nice for me to be involved in a religious movement that is all about questioning and communication and feeling your way, but to some extent, that does express a reality that happens in all religion (as andrewcooke's link above shows).
posted by Miko at 7:48 AM on March 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thank you all so much for your thoughtful responses. I hope no one thought I was trying to lump Christians with all other believers. Really, my curiosity is around the adoption of any faith and/or belief in something out there, concerned with human affairs, and maybe guiding us into some kind of afterlife.

I am Italian, but not living in the USA - I live in Canada. My husband and I aren't sad that we don't believe in god. It just doesn't register in that way. I'm more sad that his family (Evangelical Christian) a) doesn't want to talk about their beliefs with us because they're very afraid of conflict, b) they do believe we will be separated for eternity if we don't accept Christ as our personal savior. Heck, I would love to talk with them about religion! I had a wonderfully close Christian girlfriend that used to exchange her books about belief and Christianity with my books about Atheism. But she wasn't invested in my personal salvation in the way my husband's parents are. This is a very sensitive topic for them.

I wasn't really looking for advice, per se. This isn't a spiritual journey for me: I'm a very accepting atheist and materialist, who doesn't believe life has meaning beyond what we give it. I fear death and think about it literally every day - but only as an unknowable (but likely) finality to my ego.

If I had to say what I believe in... I guess it would be that I think it would truly be great if everyone treated one another as though there was absolutely no god or afterlife. I believe it would make people more compassionate to know how brief and incredible and lucky it is that we exist(ed) at all. Taking the promise of damnation or salvation out of the equation makes so much more sense to me as a humanist.

Having said that, I know from working in the public sector that religious-identified individuals tend to be more generous with donations to social services (at least in our part of southern Ontario). The active engagement that I see coming from churches to help with social welfare is incredible and humbling. The peace I see in people's faces when they are religious and faced with immanent death (i.e. my Nonna) is incredible and humbling.

My question was sort of getting at active faith vs. passive belief. How does one tip into belief? What does it feel like to open one's self or heart to Christ?

Or have you had a miracle happen to you? Have you been touched by a "sign"? Does it bother you that no one objectively knows any more about the afterlife now than they did thousands of years ago? Does faith make this position bearable? If so, why?

Thank you again. feel free to me-mail me if you want to talk theology! :D
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:42 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

How does one tip into belief?

For me (again with all applicable caveats about "belief") there was a lot of intellectualizing to it. I was growing concerned and frustrated about the limits of humanism. For instance, I know many people who say, like you "I think it would truly be great if everyone treated one another as though there was absolutely no god or afterlife." But I think it's equally easy for people to take that condition and say "so this is all there is? Then screw you, I'll get mine." It's just as easy to turn that into a rationale for self-interest, greed, and status-seeking as it is for compassion. My general opinion of how great humans are has declined over time. I now think less of our possibilities and potential as a species and find humanism can appear like a vain and parochial interest in the welfare of a single species. For me, among other things, positioning one lifetime within a far larger and (to me) divine context offers more hope that ultimate justice and redemption can exist in the universe, as despite the many gains and best efforts we can make, I just don't think, based on my life's perceptions, it ever will on earth. So I don't need to know much about any afterlife - I don't think it's knowable - just to know that time and the universe still exceeds our understanding, and by my lights there's much room within it for phenomena beyond our imagining.

It's hard that your husband's family can't discuss things openly! My condolences on that.
posted by Miko at 8:56 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Or have you had a miracle happen to you? Have you been touched by a "sign"?

Maybe? Kind of?

Warning: huge, long back story for context:

My mother grew up in Germany during WW2 and its aftermath. My father grew up in The Great Depression and fought in the front lines of 2 wars. They never once took me to church as a child. My sister has told me that one of them grew up Lutheran and one grew up as some other Christian denomination.

I went to church a handful of times with the neighbors and I had some humongous bible that was probably 4 inches thick with gold leaf edging etc. that my father had given me. He gave one to each kid, though he had no bible of his own. My parents were always quietly doing wonderful things for other people, more than some folks who go to church a lot. And they would reference god when they talked, so they seemed to take it as a given that there is a god. But we never read the bible together or anything like that.

I think they felt abandoned by god because of the hardships they experienced. One relative suggested to me that they used their different denominations as a convenient excuse to not go to church, but the real reason was this sense that if god actually loved them, they shouldn't have suffered so much.

So, I married a guy who grew up in an extremely religious family. I don't think I even knew that when I met him. He was wicked smart and when he got to be 12 years old, he had questions about things in the bible. He had read it cover to cover three times, and some stuff just didn't make sense to him. His relatives were not highly educated, so none of them could explain it to his satisfaction. They just told him "you have to take it on faith" and he couldn't.

So he stopped attending church after going like 2 to 3 times a week for years. To his family's credit, they let him and sincerely did not harass him about it.

But I think he really, really wanted to believe because he was incredibly bitter towards Christians. He would torment them and mess with their heads. He did this to a friend of ours one day in front of me when we were about 18 years old, until I interceded and told the friend "He's just kidding." And then turned to my then boyfriend and told him "Don't do that. It's cruel."

He was in his 30s before he could talk about Christianity for five or ten minutes without promptly being an asshole, which was a shame because he was actually a wealth of knowledge on the topic. I think he wanted to believe in something, because he continued to read about multiple different faiths. He seemed to eventually settle on philosophy as a thing that worked for him rather than religion.

We moved to Germany when our oldest was a baby, and I had our second child there. I attended church for a time while in Germany. During that time, my husband referred to me as a non denominational Christian, which I felt was accurate enough for purposes of making conversation. My oldest child was not baptized, but was "promised to god" in some little ceremony when he was about 18 months old. Then I had his brother and couldn't cope with getting both of them ready for church and also my favorite ministers left and new people came in...and some car parked behind my truck one Sunday morning as I was getting ready to leave and I backed into them. So, that was kind of the final straw and I quit going to church.

About the same time, it was becoming apparent that our oldest child was a lot like his dad. So I did not want a repeat of the events that made my ex be such an asshole to Christians for a time. I made the conscious decision to not take our oldest son to church so I wouldn't create a monster.

My ex and I had different beliefs, and everyone told me that destroyed marriages, but it was one of the few things we did not fight about. We both believed strongly in the American constitutional right to freedom of belief. So we raised our kids with the idea that they needed to decide for themselves what they believed. They were not indoctrinated with the beliefs of either parent. They were told they had to respect me and my beliefs, but were not required to agree.

So, I am someone who believes there is some kind of intelligence behind the workings of the universe (aka "god") and might have been religious had my life gone differently. My oldest self identifies as a nihilist. He doesn't believe there is anything other than physics. My youngest is extremely introverted and getting information out of him is like pulling teeth, but he has mentioned a belief in reincarnation (which I also believe in).

I have lively interesting conversations with them about this stuff. An underlying framework for us is a strong belief in brain wiring as "destiny" so to speak. I think people like me probably invented religion and people like him invented science. Our brains just work differently.

I had a serious medical crisis about 15 years ago. While bedridden, I routinely hallucinated the Grim Reaper keeping me company and waiting for me to die. One day, I hallucinated that he took a good long hard look in my face and then left.

I have one foot in the camp of "that was something real" and one one foot in the camp of "it was just feverish imaginings of a distressed brain". And also think it doesn't matter which is true, either way, his departure signalled that I would live.

But, prior to that, there was a moment when I was particularly sick and the medication was not working and I realized I was in real danger of dying, like possibly within the next 48 hours. With that realization, I fell into a deep sleep for about two hours and I dreamed I was under sentence of death for being too cold to people, in particular to a man I was friends with who had been really supportive and he was married and a good Catholic boy, so while he made it clear he was attracted to me, there was no affair. I had never told him how much he meant to me or how life changing his support was because he wanted to be faithful to his wife and I wanted to respect that and I had all kinds of baggage concerning being "temptation" -- being blamed for the bad behavior of men around me. So, I thought being cold to him was the morally right thing to do, and here I was dreaming that I was under sentence of death for it.

So, I woke up and resolved to call him and let him know what a huge positive influence he had been on my life. Then, I went back to sleep for like 14 hours and the medication kicked in and, obviously, I didn't die.

So, it was outside of the context of religion, but that was my "born again" moment. I still probably err some on the side of trying to be Proper, but I stopped being so cold to people out of a misguided sense of ...I guess, feelings are bad?

After being bedridden for some months and heavily medicated, etc, my brain changed. Ever since then, I perceptually experience life, the universe and everything differently.

So, I think that brains perceive different things about the universe. And some are just wired to see it or experience it in terms of god/faith/religion and some aren't. I also think sometimes the brain changes because life happens, and you literally have a change of mind. And maybe this explains some conversions to faith, whether they are radical or gradual.

My nihilist son has posited that if there is a god and a heaven, then if he is any good, you should go to heaven for being a good person and not for sitting in church one morning a week. And I basically agree with that. So I think my son turned out better for not being taken to church, because he did not follow in his father's embittered footsteps and never took up psychologically tormenting Christians as a hobby. Thus, I hope that whatever intelligence there is behind the workings of the universe approves of my parenting choice as having been the best way to help my son grow up to be a decent human being.

So: tldr: I think there are souls and so on, and some people hear/see/feel that and some don't. And I don't mean that they are merely blind or deficient or wrong, just that they are geared to perceiving other aspects of life, the universe and everything. And sometimes a person's perceptions change for some reason, thus their beliefs change.
posted by Michele in California at 11:06 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not a Christian.

1. When did it happen? Was it an "a-ha" moment? A gradual understanding? Did an event in your life trigger it?

Probably about a year or two of development from a pragmatic moral animism that considered non-human entities as having moral interests to a more broader theological nondualism. Part of that involved reading into Shaivite, Shakta, Vaishnavist, and theistic Buddhist work I had been barely introduced to as an American that suggested a "less wrong" accounting of key concepts that are important to me. There were "a-ha" moments, and there were moments of confirmation of experience.

2. What did it feel like? Did the world change for you?

In some ways yes, and in some ways no. People really underestimate the frequency of religious experience among atheists.

3. How "certain" are you in your belief? (I hate to ask, but like, if you had to quantify in percentage?)

I'm not certain I'd calculate belief in this way. On some things, I've been a vegetarian going on 20 years now, and that's based on a fundamental premise that non-human entities have moral interests. On other things, I think Vishnumaya is a reasonable working hypothesis, but matter/spirit dualism clearly is not.

4. Are you bothered by the thought of people you love *not* believing?

Not believing? Not one bit. Other theists tend to make more drama than atheists.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:34 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

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