How Being an Atheist Made Me a Better Christian

How a season of disbelief helped one writer come to terms with real belief.

The best thing that ever happened to my faith was losing it. It sounds strange, but sometimes the only way God can move in us is by breaking all our boxes. For me to love God, I had to let go and walk away.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest denomination in the Evangelical movement, and I was a proud member. In fact, I was a Deacon and Sunday School teacher by the time I was 25. A lot of my friends didn't even have jobs at that age, but I thought I had it all together. I was married, with a baby on the way. Life was good.

Those were days of happiness and peace. But it all fell apart when my parents' marriage ended. Their divorce sent me on a quest to know the Bible better so that I could share God's position on divorce with authority.

I read the Bible four times in one year looking for answers. All I found was more questions. What started as a study on marriage ended in a fight for my faith.

And I lost.

I read the Bible four times in one year looking for answers. All I found was more questions.

One day I said this during prayer: "God, I don't know why I'm praying. You aren't even real." Just like that, I was an atheist, and I spent the next two years living a lie. I pretended to believe in person, while advancing humanism on the Internet. I know that sounds silly, even duplicitous, but I really wanted to help people.

A Deacon can't just show up at church and say they don't believe in God anymore. Plus, I found hundreds of people on the Internet who were losing their faith like I was, and I wanted to help them adjust to finding meaning via means other that belief in God. It's harder than it sounds.

But God wasn't done with me. Even though I didn't believe in any god, God reached out to me standing on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. In that moment, reality seemed like a veil that was stretched taut. I could make out the glory of God on the other side, and it moved me. I felt connected to God, and through God to all my fellow humanity. It was beautiful, and it changed my life forever.

It also left me confused. I know I couldn’t have experienced God if He didn’t exist. I spent two years climbing back into Faith. I had to start over, learning who God is and how I can be a part of God's work.

However, looking back, I see that my time as an atheist made me a better Christian. Here’s how:

No Doctrinal Drama

Christians get upset over doctrinal differences. I used to as well. But now, I approach all human knowledge with greater humility. When you lose God through rational analysis, you contemplate life from a materialistic philosophy. This perspective shows you that man's ideas about God are flawed. I believe again, but I also believe no church sect has figured out the Great Mystery. I have doctrinal beliefs, but I know some of them may be wrong. I just don't know which ones.

That means I hold my faith with open hands instead of closed fists. The beliefs of others don't bother me. I am happy to hear what they believe about God, and how they arrived at that belief. Everyone has something to teach me—even atheists.

Life With New Eyes

Christians think about the afterlife a lot. I never understood how much until I stopped believing in life after death. We're so concerned with Heaven, Hell and who goes where that we forget about this life. Our Scriptures talk much more about this life than the next, but our focus often doesn't reflect that.

Atheists don't have that luxury. With no God and no afterlife, atheists must concern themselves with the here and now. With no savior, atheists must work to address suffering with their own hands. With no heaven or hell, atheists have to savor and enjoy every moment as a gift.

I haven't lost that perspective. The Good News means little to someone who is starving or who has no roof over their head. Likewise, I am mindful of all those moments we have now that reflect the Kingdom of God. Every Sunday I spend singing with my friends and family at church is divine. Each touch of my wife's hand is a blessing, and every twirl my daughters make down the hall fills me with life.

I am moved every time I take the Eucharist, and being able to say, "I believe in God" is a gift of unspeakable beauty.

There Are No Wrong Questions

Losing God changed me. I'm happy to look for an answer without finding one, and I'm comfortable with uncertainty. My faith is an act of simple trust now.

As a kid, I asked all the wrong questions. I wanted to know how dinosaurs fit on the Ark, or how the whole world came from Adam and Eve or from Noah's family after the flood. In time, I learned what questions would make people uncomfortable, and I kept them to myself. I became uncomfortable when people would ask hard questions about justice or the morality of God in Scripture.

I'm not afraid of questions anymore. There is no forbidden section in the library of knowledge. Truth is Truth, regardless of its source. I will discuss any topic with any person, and I'll do my best to check my biases at the door.

Atheism doesn't pretend to have answers to every question. Losing God changed me. I no longer feel like I have to have answers to all the questions we face in life. I'm happy to look for an answer without finding one, and I'm comfortable with uncertainty. My faith is an act of simple trust now.

What I know is less important than what I do. Knowing Jesus is not an abstract set of information or a construct of dogma. Being a Christian comes down to the simple of act of dropping my nets when I hear the words, "Come, follow me."

Top Comments

Matt Kofler

1

Matt Kofler commented…

I also lost my faith briefly during my time in university. But it seems like my experience of atheism was a bit more, well, dark than the experience of the writer of this article or of some of the atheists who have commented. For me, it was abundantly clear that removing God from the universe was like pulling out the final brick at the bottom of the Jenga tower; everything falls apart. I know the suggestion that morality, even the Golden Rule, falls apart without God will probably make some people angry, but for me, atheism always implied comprehensive nihilism. Statements like "atheists have to savour and enjoy every moment as a gift" totally clashes with my own experience of wanting to end my own life due to feelings of intense nihilistic despair. That's just my own experience, of course, but I can't help but think that much of the modern interpretation of atheism is akin to Prosperity Gospel preaching because it ignores this darker side of the world-view. Going through a period of this modern variety of atheism feels like having survived a tough case of the common cold, whereas the atheism I went through was like getting hit by a train, in that it very nearly killed me.

Steve Cornell

207

Steve Cornell commented…

When asked why I believe in Christianity and follow the Bible, among other reasons, I admit that I can’t find an alternative worldview that corresponds with reality as comprehensively as what I find in the true account of Christianity.

This doesn’t mean that I find everything easy to understand or explain because of Christianity. Life is painfully complicated and parts of the Bible (on which Christianity is based) are difficult to explain. Some biblical passages are written in cryptic prose; others are just hard to absorb on an emotional level.

But I believe a Christian worldview offers the most logically consistent and plausibly realistic understanding of life and the world. It simply does the best job explaining the world we encounter each day. And it offers the best explanatory frame for the most extensive range of evidence in the world and in the human spirit.

While there are painful and complicated issues that are beyond my full comprehension, I come back to one compelling question: “What way of seeing things corresponds most with reality and does not contradict what I clearly know to be true?” Asked differently, “What seems to be the most plausible way of seeing things in light of what we know about humanity, the observable world and its history?

(see: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/the-most-plausible-worldview/ )

42 Comments

Theo Philus

2

Theo Philus commented…

This is a real life Prodigal story. One who lived in the house, but left the house to live in the world, then returned to a Father whose arms were wide open and celebration waiting. Very encouraging to hear what GOD has done in your heart Mike. And I seem to be hearing a consistent message this week. Seems like doctrinal division is in front of my face the last couple weeks for me personally as I have been seeing division in the body and believers separating from other believers. It has been troubling, but very eye opening. And Mike found the real answer. He dropped his nets and responded when Jesus said to him, "Come, follow me."

Let's not be misled. Keeping sound doctrine is critical, but applying it is where the danger lies. Doctrine is meant to be a mirror to ourselves, so that we recognize when we have more dying to do so that Christ can be more evident in us - see Galatians 2:20. Unity is maturity (Ephesians 4), and we must wrestle by the Spirit of Christ with this by powering through with love.

Sometimes GOD lets us wander in the muck to recognize there is no meaning apart from him (see book of Ecclesiastes), and Mike recognized something very important as well that we so often forget. This faith is for now. It is for this time. This life. We don't need faith in the age to come when we see Christ face to face. Faith is needed now. And it needs to be lived now. The needy and broken are all around us, and for many of us, the needy and broken are ourselves. Let's join Mike in response to Jesus call, "Come, follow Me."

Ryan Leichty

1

Ryan Leichty commented…

Apparently Relevant Magazine allows Post Moderns and Emergent types to write articles.

Adebanke Buki Alabi

3

Adebanke Buki Alabi commented…

This was a great article. I am very happy about your journey. Some of these comments are the most useless, Pharisaical additions to the conversation. Y'all can have several seats. There is more rejoicing for the one found sheep than the 99 already "there." Over here checking every mint and dill to see if you're tithing appropriately. Lord help us. Check your legalism at the door.

Helena Figueiredo

1

Helena Figueiredo commented…

"That means I hold my faith with open hands instead of closed fists. The beliefs of others don't bother me. I am happy to hear what they believe about God, and how they arrived at that belief. Everyone has something to teach me—even atheists."

Exactly.

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