Fall from Faith: My Long Journey from Believer to Skeptic

I always find it weird how few people are comfortable being labeled an atheist. I've been in enough conversations with "agnostics" and "spiritualists" where they were right at the shore of atheism, but for whatever reason could not take that final step and openly admit to themselves they didn’t believe. Maybe it’s social pressure that everyone around them believes and they don’t want to be labeled as an outsider, maybe it's fear that there is no greater power keeping everything safe, or that death is truly the end, I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure more people are atheist than will ever admit it. So to do my part, I’ve decided to tell my story of how I went from an all-in Roman Catholic, to Christian, to Spiritual, to Agnostic, and to eventually Atheist.

Before we get into the journey however I do want to clarify a few things and give a bit of personal background. First of all, becoming an Atheist is a long and slow process. There’s no moment of epiphany where you jump from believer to non, at least not in any of the stories I’ve heard from fellow atheists. My personal journey took nearly 10 years from the first seed of doubt to the powerful tree or skepticism it is now. I’m not going to be able to cover everything in that decade, so instead of going through everything in great detail I’m just going to go by “levels” of belief and what caused my shift in opinion.

Second bit of background is that I was raised by two very religious parents. Thankfully they were liberally religious and focused more on the “do unto others” and “turn the other cheek” bits of the bible than the dogma and punishment bits. Basically they were the good kind of religious, if you had to be religious this would be the type I recommend. However we still went to church every Sunday, said grace before each important meal, and I was sent to a catholic school from kindergarten all the way through high school. So it would be pretty accurate to say I was all-in on this Jesus guy and his big poppa for the first several years of my life.

The first crack in my wall of belief came when I was in middle school. I was having a sleepover with two of my closest friends, and we were all in my room, talking, hanging out, being kids. Then one of my friends came out to us. Sure I had heard about homosexuality before then, I was a theatre kid after all, but this was the first time it was real to me. This was the first time the “good book” had to be wrong. After that moment, I had several conversations with myself and others about whether or not just being born something could get you thrown in hell for all eternity. “Does not compute” doesn’t even begin to cover this crisis of faith that had happened to twelve year old me.

Then around the exact same time, the giant child abuse scandal within the catholic church broke. Of course at that time I didn’t really understand the full extent of what happened, just that some Priest, a type of person I had been told to look up to, had done some terrible things to a bunch of kids, many my age at the time, and more Priests were helping to hide these facts and these Priests. After the news had broke I heard a few sermons ranging from “hate the sin, not the sinner” to “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”. All of it unconvincing to me. After hearing all this I knew “organized religion” was not good, and would never trust a group that said they spoke for God again.

This organization that I had been told to trust my whole life was so corrupt and wrong that my young pubescent mind just couldn’t make sense of it. What’s wrong with being gay? This book says it. Who wrote the book? We’re not really sure. Why can’t priest marry? Why can’t women be priests? So many things were just not adding up in my head that by the end of high school, literally the summer between high school and college, I decided that I was not longer Catholic, I just couldn’t be a part of that group any more. I still thought of myself as Christian because, at least to me at the time, God and Jesus were still real and good, but nothing was worthwhile about the Church or the Bible. A weird place to be, I know, but don’t worry I’m not going to stay in this position long.

Another odd position I held in the latter half of high school and into college was that all religions were right, each just held a part of the puzzle that was the true creation of the universe. Weird, yes, but ever since I was little I loved myths and legends, a spot where “Gods” usually came up. I forget exactly where I heard the idea from, but someone once told me that nowhere in the Bible does it say that there are no other Gods, just that you aren’t supposed to worship any other but Yahweh. Now I’m not sure if this is true, I could never get past the first few verses of Genesis, but this plus having just come across the book “American Gods”, and somewhat misunderstanding the meaning behind Gaiman’s work, this idea flourished in my overactive mind and helped grease the mental wheels to give up on the Church and follow whatever my idea of “God” was morphing into.

Comedy has always been very important to me. Humor is often how I bond with people, and helps me understand the world. Many of my favorite memories growing up are watching Seinfeld and other comedies with my dad. We even went to see Jerry Seinfeld do stand-up at one of the theaters in Albany. We also would listen to Lewis Black together, and I started looking for other comedians to follow in high school, but didn’t find a lot of my favorite stuff until college. I had heard of George Carlin, Patton Oswalt, and others before, but college was when I started my deep dive. There were so many places online that let me listen to their best stuff which helped shaped a lot of my ideas about life, but the one that is most important to this story was Penn Jillette.

I’m not sure if I had even heard of Penn & Teller before college, but by the end I’d pretty much devoured everything Penn had ever said. It started when I found all the seasons of their show “Bullshit!” on my campus’ file sharing network. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s a documentary series where each episode tackles a different topic that the duo wanted to call “Bullshit” on. At first it was only a funny show with plenty of swear words and naked people, but eventually became my introduction to skepticism and taught me how to question everything. This show tackled everything from conspiracy theories to new age medicine to religion. Over the course of the eight seasons Showtime produced I lost any belief in some devine creator and became a full Agnostic.

Look I had been brought up in a very religious household, a divine being taking an interest in my life was not something I could just completely write off so easily. Sure no evidence pointed to one, but I didn’t want to admit that there was definitely nothing. Then I read Penn Jillette’s memoir, “God, No!”. Early on in the book he frames the meaning of Agnostic and Atheist in a way that helped me make that final step.

You know I love the answer “I don’t know,” I really do, and I use it whenever I can. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer to most questions (certainly for me), but not a question of what one believes. “Is there a god?” can be answered, “I don’t know.” “Do you believe in god?” needs to be answered yes or no, even though you haven’t made up your mind for sure. None of us has made up our mind for sure, but what are you thinking now?
Jillette, Penn. God, No! (p. 77). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Sure we’ll never know if a God does or does not exist, but what did I believe? I didn’t believe there was anything. Maybe there was some great equation that balanced the universe, a thought I have since abandoned as well, but I definitely didn’t believe in any god.

Since that summer before my senior year of college, I have proudly referred to myself as an atheist. I’ve since gotten more and more into the atheist and skeptic communities. I’m currently reading books by Hitchens and Dawkins, and trying to learn and question things everyday. It’s so nice to see that there were people who also couldn’t get religion to make sense to them. I’ve also made plenty of atheist friends. Most of whom aren’t as into the movement as I am, but it’s still good to know I’m not alone.

Sure death and the thought of nothingness scares me, but that only makes me want to enjoy what time we have here even more. I try to act kinder and more understanding to people because I know there are no incantations to absolve me from being a bad person. I try to always ask people for forgiveness, and not some other being. I listen because there’s nothing out there to. We are all just people who are trying to make sense of things, no one has all the answers, but I think we can find them quicker by listening and trying to work together.

Thank you for reading this. It actually meant a lot to me that you did. If you have any questions about anything I talked about above please feel free to reach out and ask. Atheism and Humanism mean a lot to me and I’m always happy to talk about them and explain what they mean to me. See everyone next time.

-JR