As a teenager I was very religious. And very is written with intent. I was one of the most religious people I knew. Every single thing in my life revolved around my Christian beliefs. I attended Highland Park, a nondenominational Christian church in Casper. That’s where I was baptized. That’s where I formed beautiful friendships. That’s where I had the opportunity to travel out of the country for the first time. Within the walls of Highland Park, I discovered self-sacrifice, meaning, and acceptance.
During that time, I went through phases when I read the bible daily. One year my New Year’s resolution was to read the bible word-for-word, cover to cover. I remember bringing my bible with me on the school bus to high school track meets. My journal entries at this time are filled with bible verses and love letters to God. I wore a promise ring on my ring finger and was dedicated to abstinence. At one point I wanted to wait to have my first kiss with my future husband until our wedding day. My senior quote in my high school yearbook is a bible verse. I was part of a bible study with a group of others I was really close with. We met regularly to discuss particular verses and chapters of the bible. We shared how Christ was showing up in our lives, what we were struggling with, and what our prayer requests were for that week. We reinforced each other’s beliefs by isolating ourselves from other people who weren’t like us — nonbelievers. We challenged each other at times but only within safe boundaries, like disagreeing about the meaning of a particular bible verse. To question the existence of God, to ask uncomfortable questions about organized religion, or to look below the surface of our beliefs was to tread waters in the deep-end where everyone around me was too terrified to explore. The deep-end was off limits.
I increasingly became more curious of the deep-end, though. The questions that lived there challenged me. They kept my brain active. They inspired me to grow into areas I wasn’t familiar with. At the time I thought, if Christianity is true, then challenging myself with difficult questions will only strengthen my belief. And if it doesn’t – if I start to question God’s existence – then I’ll feel validated in questioning something that’s so easily shaken. I refused to let the fear of finding cracks in my beliefs keep me in a place of ignorance. I knew that if I resisted where my mind wanted to take me, I was living someone’s beliefs that weren’t my own. Regardless of where the journey would take me, discovering my own beliefs and therefore my own voice was drastically more important to me than blindfolding myself and following the voice of someone else.
Between 17 and 19 years old my beliefs slowly and achingly changed from devoted Christian to atheist/agnostic. I didn’t know what I believed, but I realized I no longer believed in the Christian God. The journey began when I allowed myself to explore the questions in the deep-end. I remember wanting to discuss the questions with those in my bible study, but I felt resistance. The questions were frustrating for us all because they didn’t come with concrete answers. Why did that happen (in the bible)? Why does this happen in life? Why would God segregate humanity into heaven and hell? That last question triggered a nearly programmed response: because God loves his people and wants them to have choice. The answers didn’t make sense to me. They were automated responses intended to end discussion as quickly as possible because difficult conversations could lead to dangerous places. I could sense I was treading outside appropriate boundaries and it made everyone uncomfortable, including myself. At the time I was really nervous to question the foundation of beliefs that I built every aspect of my life on. It was scary. I thought I was on my way to being a trophy-winning sinner for doubting if this whole thing was even real? In my journal I wrote an apology to God. I said sorry to a thing I wasn’t even sure I believed existed. At one point I wrote this poem:
Wading in the calm water
I drift further & further away
the water is so calm
I don't even realize I'm
being pulled away, until
I can't see you anymore.
I weep. I weep. I weep.
How have I lost you?
I do not know, but
you've become smaller
until you are
nothing, like a balloon
floating away in the sky,
except I'm the one
I didn’t want to float away. It was like living my entire life in a city and then finding the wilderness for the first time. The uncertainty was frightening. I wasn’t only losing my beliefs, I was stepping into a zone I knew nothing about. I was forcing myself to confront the fear that many Christians I knew shared: If I’m wrong, I’m damned to eternal suffering. That’s quite the gamble. With that came the fear of not knowing what comes after death and having to accept that the answer could be ...nothing. I was also losing relationships with those I cared about. Amidst these thoughts, before I was ready to consciously make a choice, I felt like I already had. Living within the constraints of my Christian beliefs was no longer relevant to my life. I was being led toward something else. As much as I didn’t want to go, I was simultaneously enticed by the freedom that lay beyond what I believed to be true. If this isn’t true, then what is? When you reach out and lock hands with that degree of curiosity, it’s invigorating.
When I was 17 I wrote, “I’m struggling in my beliefs more than ever and am not totally sure what I truly believe in, to be honest. But I think that’s okay. I can’t understand a God being furious of me for having questions and being open minded of other ideas. We were placed on earth to have many questions. There wasn’t anything that slapped us in the face saying, ‘I’m the answer!’” I was slowly understanding that if certainty was a matter of perception, then I had the freedom to intentionally choose what I believed was true, and not what someone else told me was true. I couldn’t think of anything more genuine or more liberating than shaping my own beliefs of the world from my direct experience of it. At the time I decided I believed that love and compassion were truth (why I tattooed love on my collar bone). Though I saw love and compassion woven into Christianity, I didn’t see it at the heart of it. Instead I saw segregation and fear, the two pillars of its structure. When fear is the primary motivator, faith in anything is possible.
Through that transformation I learned something profound: “truth” is malleable and takes shape depending on what information we decide has power. When it comes to meaning, purpose and wellbeing, there isn’t a single thread of truth that runs through the world. We select our own threads and weave together a fabric through which we view life. We tend to believe truth is etched in stone, fixed and unchangeable. However, we’re born into the structure of others’ truths. Much of what we believe is wed with what we were taught to believe, and we have little opportunity to explore our questions. Like Jenga, each time someone alters the structure they risk the entire thing crashing down. It’s safe to remove loose pieces of the structure, but everyone avoids pulling out a fundamental piece because the rest will topple. Few people want to challenge the foundation of their beliefs because they chance putting themselves in a position where they have to rebuild.
Life offers a buffet of choices we can scoop on our plate of beliefs — not just religious beliefs, but what we believe is a meaningful life, what equation equals happiness, what’s right and what’s wrong, what we want and what we don’t want but think we want because someone else told us that’s what we should want. There are particular recipes that are easy to follow in life: one marriage, a lot of money, a little Sunday church service. It’s simple, it’s easy to follow, and it doesn’t require too much free will. Choice takes more energy than following a ready-made recipe.
Someone filled your plate and handed it to you as a child. Are you still holding that same plate, or have you explored the buffet and made your own choices?
I have to ask myself this question everyday.
You may at any moment decide to shed what no longer fits into your view of the world. You may, at any moment, reconstruct what you believe is meaningful. You could throw the whole plate on the ground and start fresh. You don’t have to, but you could.
Choosing to no longer believe in Christianity was the most difficult yet most meaningful decision I’ve ever made. I know many people who claim the most significant decision they’ve made is to believe in God, and there isn’t anything wrong with that.
I only encourage each of us to ask the question: Is it my choice?