The stages of grief over my loss of faith
I had, over a period of many years, thought about a number of questions regarding faith, life, etc., but I usually stopped short of taking my thoughts to their logical conclusions. At some point last year, however, I realized that I had drifted from standard Christian theism to pretty much of a deist position.
Last summer, I was asked to write a book review of Parenting Beyond Belief, which endorses explicitly atheistic points of view with regard to child-rearing. When I initially got the request, I jokingly said to myself, “I’d better be careful or I’ll be a full-fledged atheist by the time I finish the book.” In fact, I almost declined the review because I didn’t want to risk endangering my faith. Then I realized that, if my faith was that flimsy, then it wasn’t worth keeping. Sure enough, as I read the book, I kept pausing and thinking, “that idea makes an awful lot more sense than Christian idea X.” After I wrote the review, I realized that the book had pushed me into systematically thinking through many of the questions I had shelved over the years. This was the catalyst that prompted my de-conversion process.
At that point, I went through an intense period of searching for answers. This was the denial phase of grief over my impending loss of faith. I did not want to lose or give up my faith and I fought to keep it. Consequently I devoured Christian and atheist web sites and blogs. I read portions of the Bible. I read 20 books within 3 weeks: McLaren, Geisler, Campolo, Borg, Wright, Templeton, Mills, Eller, etc. During the first week, my reading was heavily skewed toward Christian literature – 6 books in 8 days. I said to myself, “I’ve always been taught that God will honor the prayers of sincere seekers. . . his Word will not return void. . . .”
By the end of that first week, I realized that I no longer believed. The Christian literature was contradictory. The Bible was inconsistent. The Christian concept of God was incoherent. The apologetics were logically flawed. I was in emotional, spiritual and psychological shock for several days. I could think of nothing else but my loss of faith and the fact that I would never be able to recover it. I now realize that this period of shock was the second stage of my grieving process.
Then, I went through the anger stage. The most intense moments of this phase came when I learned that the “virgin birth” verse in Matthew is mistranslated. Translating the Hebrew text as “young woman” rather than “virgin” makes a huge difference doctrinally (regardless of NT Wright’s assertion to the contrary). The standard Christian apologists’ assurances that all of the Bible’s translation errors are minor (simple numerical discrepancies, etc.) and have no bearing on doctrine is flat-out wrong! And when I read, in several sources (Including his own writings), that St. Jerome knew that the translation was wrong, but offered some twisted logic for preserving the error, I was furious. I read about how an early Church father (perhaps it was Eusebius?) doctored the writings of Josephus so that they would appear to confirm more explicitly the life and ministry of Jesus. And I read much more that confirmed by non-belief. Even though I was furious with Christian preachers and teachers, much of my anger was directed at myself. How could I have been so stupid? Why didn’t I see through this stuff before? I’m a well-educated woman living in the 21st century. How could I have gone decades without recognizing that religious doctrine is all speculation? That none is any more correct than any other? None of the biblical writers really knew what they were writing about. None of the Church fathers or reformers through the ages knew what they were teaching to be factual. And contemporary Christian scholars don’t actually know what they’re talking and writing about either. It’s all guesswork, wishful thinking and ready acceptance of the traditions of our forebears. Every bit of it.
Finally, I settled into acceptance. I became comfortable with the thought that, if there is a creator, none of the human conceptions of that entity are anywhere close to accurate. Therefore, for all practical purposes, there is no God. Certainly the judgmental, jealous, loving, omniscient, omnipotent, immutable, capricious entity posited by the Abramic religions is not real. And other conceptions are not any more likely to be real either. If God exists, he/she/it is not a personal entity involved in or concerned with the affairs of humankind. That being has not revealed itself through miracles or sacred texts or incarnations. Once I accepted these ideas, I realized that I am free to live my life according to my values. Moreover, I am free to define and shape those values. And most importantly, I am free to make the most of this life, now, and I’d better do so, because this is the only life I’ll ever have.
I will close by saying that I don’t define myself simply as an atheist, by an affirmation of what I don’t believe. Rather, I consider myself a rational humanist, an affirmation of values that I hold dear, values that I’m free to refine as new knowledge and experiences come my way. In short, I’m free to grow in my beautiful, imperfect, precious humanity. It’s a wonderful life.
- the chaplain