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My story, continued

October 16, 2010

(This is the continuation of my second post, “Let’s start at the very beginning.”)

New found freedom of ideas

In college I began to seek differing viewpoints, though still mostly in secret from those around me.  As I said, I went to a Christian university and most of the students, professors, and staff members were good Christian folk, mostly Southern Baptist.  Most, but not all.  There were a couple of professors who didn’t quite fit in with what I then thought of as Christians, it intrigued me.  It was in college that I was first introduced to the idea (in a religion class) that the Bible contained many inconsistencies and contradictions.  I met the first Christian evolutionist I had known, and I began to wonder, more and more, about the things I was as a child.  If my college education accomplished nothing more than this then I am very grateful for it.

When I started college I was studying music. Just music, no actual declared major. I soon bowed to the pressure (from my family, professors, and fellow students, whether or not they realized it) and declared my major as church music. This was a great decision as I got a lot of scholarship money without having to worry so much about keeping my grades up like I would have had to with the honors scholarship I started on. I also began working in the church by the end of my freshman year. By the end of my sophomore year I was officially a music director in a local Southern Baptist church!

Sophomore year was a very hard one, I was working my first job in my chosen profession, I had a heavy course load, and I had to worry about my upper-levels at the end of the school year. For the non-music majors out there, upper-levels were sort of a mini-recital for the music faculty to determine if I could start my upper-level classes the next fall. 15 minutes of music. It shouldn’t have been that hard, but nerves got the best of me and I flubbed. Nerves and the stress of that semester. There were many times that semester that I came close to having a nervous breakdown, and I was having to deal with these doubts on top of everything else.

I survived. I re-did my upper-levels first thing in the fall and passed. Aced them, actually. I got into the rhythm of working in the church, of actually being in charge of something rather than following someone else’s orders. But I was still trying to figure out this faith stuff, and what it was I really believed. There were many times I could barely listen to the preacher because I didn’t agree with what he was saying, but I kept my mouth shut and did my job.

New ideas, same old doubts

It was sometime during my first (of two) senior year that I discovered reformed theology.  (In the protestant church the two major streams of theology are Arminianism and Calvinism, the biggest defining differences between these two is free will vs. predestination, that is an oversimplification but this is not a post about that, reformed theology is another term for Calvinism, the Southern Baptist church is largely Arminian.)  I thought this was the answer to all my problems!  Sure, I’d had the wrong answer all this time but the right answer still involved God, the Bible, and almost the same ideas I’d been taught all my life, just a few key points had been wrong!

Of course, I still had my doubts.  Indeed, now that I was actually studying theology, I had more.  Lots more.  But I just ignored them as best I could and kept on being the best Christian that I could.  This began to weigh on my mind heavily.  I graduated and was still working at the church I started at in my Sophomore year, but I was quickly getting burnt out being in leadership position in the church, especially one that I no longer saw eye-to-eye with.  I told myself it was just the difference in theology, but really it was a difference deeper than that.  I wasn’t doubting the fact of predestination over free-will, I was doubting the existence of God.

Well, the economy took over for me.  I was barely making $150 a week at the church and the economy was in a slump.  The job market in my area was dry and money was running out, quickly.  I quit the church and moved back to my original hometown.  I found work and settled in.  I got involved in a Presbyterian church, and a local community choir.  I made friends, I worked, and went to church.  I began to enjoy life, ignoring my doubts by not thinking deeply on religion at all.  And at least the church preached the theology I’d discovered in college.

I worked there for three years and took another, better paying job.  I sang in a few productions with the local opera.  I realized I missed music and decided to go back to school.  A year after I’d started, I quit that job and moved again, starting grad school, studying choral music.  My intention was, at first, to get my maser’s and doctorate and then get a college job.  I had no interest in working for the church anymore.

Then I discovered that it is nearly impossible to get a college job without high school or at least middle school teaching experience.  I had no desire to do that, I really feel that I would do a disservice to any kids I may teach, and I realized that I also really had no desire to teach at the college level after seeing how the politics of it all really interferes with the music.  I decided I would go back into church work.  I found a local church in need of a choir director and started part-time.  I worked there for a year and then moved to another church (the job I have now), also part-time.

Admitting the truth to myself

It was while I was at that first church in grad school that I realized I no longer believe in the Bible, Christianity, or God.  I realized that I had ideas far, far to the left of most of the people in the church.  I realized that I no longer agreed with my parents on anything.  I was in a small group Bible study with some friends and I realized that I really didn’t agree with anything I read.  But I didn’t say anything about my disbelief.  I kept quiet and I said the things that I knew would go along with what a Christian would say.  But I no longer believed them.

I started reading online some of the leading atheist thinkers like Dawkins.  I began following PZ Myers’ blog.  I began watching videos on YouTube from folks like Thunderf00t.  (All of these names, if they are not familiar to you, are on my Links page.)  And I didn’t find myself questioning much of what they had to say.  I already agreed with these people.

I still couldn’t admit to myself that I no longer believed in any of this, that I was an atheist.  I convinced myself I was just in a period of doubt.  Of course, the more I examined what I believe, and what I had believed for some time, I realized this period had lasted for over 15 years, half my life.  I realized this wasn’t just a period of doubt, but that I no longer believed what I learned as a child, or what I heard at church each week.

So, I admitted to myself that I am an atheist.  I no longer believe in Jesus Christ, God, or the Bible.  I am working at a church until I can find a full-time job outside the church.  I will continue my music as a hobby for now, grateful for all I have learned but realizing that, at this point, it just isn’t a viable career for me.  I will apply the skills I’ve learned in the church work in the secular work force and not regret the time I put into it.  This happened sometime before the beginning of summer.

It was still hard, having this secret that I couldn’t tell my family, anyone at work, or most of my friends.  And I still don’t really know what I’ll do in life.  Making a major life change in this bad job market hasn’t been easy.  But, at least I don’t have a family to deal with, at least I’m not in a long-term career position, and at least I don’t have much to lose!

I thank you all for the support I’ve received over the past few days.  I knew others would have similar stories to my own, I didn’t expect to hear from them so soon.  I look forward to further discussion with everyone!

(Update: I’ve made a new post that expounds on the actual ideas that led to my becoming an atheist.)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2010 3:08 pm

    I can relate to a lot of this, with the obvious difference in that I am still a Christian — and one who feels called to be a pastor. I tend to be more liberal-leaning, but I also don’t sense a disconnect between my faith and liberal tendencies. I don’t understand the faith of the SBC and groups of similar leanings. It looks drastically different from my own. I’ve come to deeply appreciate the places I can be and feel okay with not having everything together.

    I truly wish (and pray) good things for you. I can relate REALLY well to the major job change during a bad economic time. I hope you find a place that is good for you, where you can feel the freedom to be authentic. I imagine this blog may be one step to that =0)

  2. November 29, 2010 7:48 pm

    I’m a semi-secret atheist, as well. I’ve only “come out” in the most backhanded way–by allowing Facebook to publish my posts so that my family might follow them through (but they might not). My grandfather was a pastor, so my whole family is pretty darn religious. I’m fearful of a religious intervention.

    I’m glad I found your blog via Godless Paladin!

    • November 29, 2010 7:58 pm

      I’m glad you found it, too! I’m enjoying your blog as well (I’m a bit of a cooking enthusiast). Interestingly, I found your blog after following you on twitter and reading the blog post you linked, which included the linkback to it since you mentioned it in your latest post. I’m rambling, sorry.

  3. Joe permalink
    December 12, 2010 3:23 am

    I can relate to being in denial about your unbelief. In college I first started having major doubts, but I was afraid of where that would lead. Also the fact that I was a leader in my highly evangelistic college ministry made me want to keep things to (and in a way *from*) myself. I even became a full-time missionary for nearly four years, in part to keep myself from “coasting” and getting apathetic about my faith. Well, its nearly ten years later and I just recently acknowledged my unbelief to myself, and finally telling some close family and friends. I can tell you that evem though outing myself has been one of the hardest experiences in my life, that the more I do it, the more unburdened I feel. I’m glad I came across your blog on exC. Good luck with your process!

    • December 13, 2010 6:36 pm

      Welcome Joe! I’m glad you came across my blog, too!

      Initially I felt that my doubts were my “sinful nature” and I prayed to God to take them away. When he did no such thing I tried to imagine that they didn’t exist, but I managed to allow them to develop more and more. I had a strange duality of mind for a long time. The “Christian” side believing the things of Christianity and the “secular” side believing the things of science.

      I was scared to lose something I’d believed in and dedicated myself to for the first 30 years of my life, scared that I would lose friends and alienate family, scared that I might make the wrong decision. I even considered missionary work for a while after college. Glad that I didn’t go that route and actually worked some secular jobs for a while. I think that helped me to not bury my unbelief so deeply.

  4. December 28, 2010 1:08 pm

    Thanks for sharing your very personal story. I also am not out as an atheist (which you might be able to guess from my username!). Since my friends, family, and co-workers are all believers in one religion or another, I feel like I have to keep my thoughts to myself in person, except to my wife.

    I’m thankful there’s a variety of sites, blogs, etc. for those of us who aren’t out yet to share thoughts, experiences, and a few laughs (I think “White Wine in the Sun” which you posted is great because it has a little of everything in it). Best of luck with everything!

    • December 28, 2010 4:38 pm

      I’m glad you found my site, unknownatheist! It sounds like you are out to your wife, is she also an unbeliever?

      Glad you enjoyed the video, too. :)

      • December 31, 2010 11:32 am

        Thanks for the reply. My wife isn’t out actually, but she’s okay with my atheism. I think she still worries about my immortal soul sometimes, but it’s just something we agree to disagree on and I don’t think she obsesses over it.

        It sounds like for you though that your wife doesn’t know, right? That must be even harder. I thought it would be a big deal with my wife, but it went a lot better than I thought when she found out. I was lucky in that sense, it sounds like your situation is a lot more complicated.

      • December 31, 2010 3:04 pm

        Oh I am quite happily single, that is not something I’ve got to worry about!

  5. February 8, 2011 3:21 pm

    Wow! Just found your site and read these first posts. Makes me sad to see you have to hide your beliefs from people, and it must be hard. I do not share the Atheist belief but I can relate to coming out of the belief closet! Honestly when I did it helped me see who loved me and who didn’t. Hopefully one day you can be happy too?
    Have ever thought about Universal Unitarians for a job? Some of them cater to the Atheist Community and you would still get to use your education…….

    • February 8, 2011 6:41 pm

      Welcome to the blog!

      Yeah, but the music of the UU church tends to be… Not up to my standards (honestly the music in many churches isn’t up to my standards, some have called me a music snob). Also they tend to not pay full-time music people.

      I’ve come to terms with not using my education for my career. An education, I feel, is never wasted even if it doesn’t directly contribute to one’s career. Besides, even if I wanted a church job right now those are as hard to find as any other job, if not harder. Lots of churches that used to pay full-time have gone to part-time with no benefits because of the lousy economy.

  6. November 26, 2011 11:21 am

    I feel a bit guilty that I had such an easy time of it all. Raised Catholic, I knew by 17 that it was no more than an authoritarian bureaucracy and that if there was a god of any sort it certainly didn’t reside there.

    I spent a few years not even worrying about it before I found Baha’i. To my poor religious education (you know – all those years of catechism!) those folks seemed to have the answers to all the questions. I stayed with them for 14 years.

    Now, Baha’i is an odd-seeming religion. An offshoot of Islam, it seems to have a view that is very liberal, with women equal to men, all (major) religions being true but outdated, and an absolute lack of militant tendencies. The founder of it had said that if you found anything better then go to it.

    I had always been skeptical, and was often uncomfortable with even such an innocuous act as praying in a group. I never gave up reading science literature and I took everything with the proverbial grain of salt. One day, while I was reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, I came across a line that basically said, wouldn’t it be nice if gods were real, but of course they aren’t.

    That did it for me. That one line in a book was enough to make me realize that I was simply posturing as a religionist and that I didn’t actually believe any of it. Like a house of cards, the entire religious construct fell flat. I felt little or no remorse, I only felt that the monkey was gone from my back. That was about 27 years ago. All I can say about that is that life has been so much better without the discomfort of cognitive dissonance constantly in the background. It’s like taking off a pair of dirty glasses and realizing that you don’t even need glasses.

    I often read books and accounts of people leaving their religions and am amazed at the degree of angst that they suffer through a sometimes long process.

    I’m also lucky that my family is not uber religious. When I told them (at a funeral gathering) that I was an atheist, I found that many of them were on much the same wavelength, though perhaps it hadn’t quite gelled. When my father was dying, he confessed that he was certainly not sure of the truth of religion. I never experienced the shunning or disgust or pity from family members that many others have to shoulder.

    I hope that your own path gets easier.

    • November 27, 2011 4:03 am

      Thanks for checking out my blog and sharing a bit of your story with me!

      “All I can say about that is that life has been so much better without the discomfort of cognitive dissonance constantly in the background.”

      ^– That has been so true for me, as well. This past year and half has been great because of it. Even though I am struggling with stuff like finding a job/new career and still worry about what some friends and my family will say when they find out that I don’t believe, and worry just a little bit that someone at my church will find out somehow and I will be fired, I have felt freer than I ever have. The weight of guilt that I had felt most of my life was lifted when I admitted to myself that I don’t believe any of it.

      • November 27, 2011 8:16 pm

        I hope you’ve got a long-term plan. It seems to me that it would be nice if you could have a job that wasn’t dependent upon keeping yourself in the closet.

        I’d be careful about the family. I was exceptionally lucky. When I became a Baha’i at 21 my grandmother asked me why I left Catholicism. I told her I didn’t believe it anymore and she shrugged and never brought it up again.

        All those years later, my family turned out to have the same kind of feelings I did, and none of them gave me any flack or criticism. But I realize that I’m unbelievably lucky and that most people have lots of struggles to go through. Best of luck to you.

  7. December 1, 2011 3:46 am

    Right now my plan is to get A+ certified and get into IT. Hoping it works out. Actually, I would probably have been re-evaluating my career even had I not left religion. The job market for people with my degree is small and over-saturated, even if I had planned to settle with the masters degree and do church work.

    The last church job I applied for had over 200 other applicants for the position. I’m sure half of those had doctorates and half of those probably had 10+ years experience in large churches. So even before I left my religion I was considering a change.

  8. December 1, 2011 1:55 pm

    There should be work in IT. I used to run a computer shop in my basement a few years ago and I studied the A+ manuals cover to cover. I found the DOS stuff pretty boring. I had run a DOS computer for about eight years, but heck, that’s way back in the past. I couldn’t make any money at it – most people in this small area prefer horses to computers. They’d bring me an old Win 98 computer and want me to make it work and how much can you charge people who can’t afford to upgrade from 98?

    I suppose it depends on where you are and what you do with it. Good luck!

    • December 3, 2011 6:20 am

      No more DOS stuff on A+, it runs Windows 2000 to Windows Vista these days. What I’d like to do, rather than run my own repair business, is get a helpdesk/IT job for some company in town and then move up from there.

  9. May 15, 2017 5:12 am

    Recently I have let go of my Christian faith but have only told a few people, but I still (very occasionally) go to church sometimes. In my case, at least a lot of my family is cool with it. But it must have been hard to be an atheist while working in the church and having an all Christian family!
    I apologise if you have already posted this somewhere else, but do your friends and family all know now?


  1. Let’s start at the very beginning « The Secret Atheist

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