A Year of Apostasy
Note: I was originally intending to post this on the very day of the anniversary of my apostasy but I was unable to complete it to my satisfaction.
May 24, 2015. It was a day I will always remember. It was the day that for the first time in my life, I seriously considered that the Christian beliefs that I had held for over 30 years were not founded on reality and that perhaps there was no god. It has now been a year and a very good one at that. I’ve learned more in this one year that perhaps I even had in a year of college. Quite frankly, things couldn’t be better.
The First Few Weeks
It was definitely strange at first. On one hand, the world finally made sense. All of my biggest questions had been very quickly and easily answered by simply removing god and the supernatural. The explanations were far more logical and simple. They required no ad-hoc explanations or appeals to even more supernatural. They required no human authority figures to explain it and no ancient texts that had to be interpreted. All cognitive dissonance that had been created by my religious beliefs dissipated. It was relief.
On the other hand, I was now in a difficult situation. While my wife had been doing the research together with me, I couldn’t tell her. For one, I wasn’t sure how she would take it. But more importantly, I didn’t want to influence her in any way. We were both on a quest for truth and I felt it was important that she find her own way. So I silently kept reading, researching and thinking with my new godless worldview. I very much wanted to tell her or to tell anyone, but I couldn’t. Thankfully about two weeks later she told me she was having serious doubts and I voiced my agreement. It was probably another couple weeks before she finally gave up the faith too. I can’t even begin to say how lucky I am that we have taken this journey together. Many couples aren’t this fortunate. In fact, these sorts of changes typically bring relationships to unfortunate ruin.
However, there was also the matter of the rest of my family and friends. My entire family is religious (or so I thought… more on that in a few) and most of my friends as well. When you play a big part in religious communities you tend to gather many religious friends and this was the case for us as well. We now no longer had our faith in common. Would they remain our friends? Would this create problems in our families? At first, we thought nobody would ever be able to know and that we would have to hide it for the rest of our lives. We didn’t consider how difficult it would be to hide, however.
It also felt very strange and even a bit sad that I was now forsaking a tradition in which I had invested over 30 years and many, many hours of time. Every church service, youth group meeting, bible study, committee meeting, band rehearsal, song writing, music arrangements, setting up sound equipment and tearing it down, driving hours to venues, selecting music to go with messages, every hour spent attempting to start up new services for young people… every prayer. All of this had been to support something that I no longer believed existed. Some good things had come of it, sure. You could even argue that many good things came of it, such as friendships, doing some good for the less fortunate, being there for each other, a tremendous sense of community and some really fun camp-outs and picnics. But even these good things were predicated on a god I no longer believed in.
It was weird.
It Was Also Scary
The most difficult part of walking away from my faith was that I was now giving up on any idea of immortality or surviving my own death in an afterlife. For over 30 years I was pretty confident that I was destined to spend an eternity in some sort of blissful afterlife. I didn’t really worry about my salvation (one of the benefits of some Protestant faiths is that they focus far more on the “loving God” and much less on the “vengeful God”). In fact, I would say that due to the influence of some close family that are Jehovah’s Witnesses I even had the idea that Armageddon was going to happen within my lifetime and that I wouldn’t even have to worry about experiencing death in this world. I think I gave up on that idea in my early 20’s, however. While I was confident in my fate, there was always a small concern, however. It was always there, small as it was. Was I really doing the right thing? Did I believe the right way? Was I truly saved? What if I was wrong? What if I hadn’t done enough? What if my faith wasn’t strong enough?
A year ago I had to give up the idea of the afterlife completely. For me it was more sad than anything. At first it was tough to accept that when I inevitably die someday, that I was very likely going to simply cease to exist. It was sad to think that those deceased relatives that I had looked forward to seeing again in the afterlife, had also simply ceased to exist and that I was not going to see them again. It was disappointing that I would never get to receive all the answers to questions of science like I had always hoped I would get in the afterlife.
It was tough, but it got easier. As time passed I found myself thinking about this situation and realizing that I had “non-existed” for 13.8 billion years before I was born. It wasn’t so bad, as I recall. There was certainly no pain or suffering. This didn’t sound all that bad. In fact, I realized what I feared more than non-existence was the process of dying. But once I’m gone, I know I will pass into a final rest. An eternal rest of peace. My body will return to the earth from whence it came and these organic molecules may just become a part of some other life, just as my body is surely made of material that once belonged to the lives of organisms gone for eons.
Oddly I am now more at peace with my ultimate fate than I was as a believer. The pressure is off. I no longer have that little voice of concern. If there is an afterlife, I don’t think any of us knows anything about it and if I make it there, I will be pleasantly surprised. But at this point I’m not planning on it, and I’m just fine with this.
Free to Sin??
And now the best part of becoming an atheist. Now I can sin all I want and not have to answer to anyone for it! Muahahahahahahaaaaaa! Greed, avarice, drunkenness, debauchery, sexual escapades, deception and selfishness. I can indulge as I like and…
… and I still would pay the price.
No, I am not free to do as I please without consequences. No, I have no interest in being greedy or to drink excessively or be unfaithful to my wife. In fact, I plan on continuing a life of modesty, saving and preparing for the future, appreciating what I have, living healthy, being the best husband and father I can possibly be, maintain my honesty and integrity and to help others and donate time, energy and resources to good causes. Why?
Because life is better when we do these things. My life is better because it has been scientifically demonstrated that material things do not increase happiness, that having close relationships with family and friends is hugely beneficial, because being healthy leads to a higher quality of life and that helping others is a path to our own contentment in life. Being a good person also improves the lives of those around me for obvious reasons.
Making New Friends and Family
A little over a year ago, perhaps a couple weeks or months before I discarded my faith, I reconnected with a cousin I hadn’t seen for 13 years and had never even really talked to or gotten to know at all. You see, she was a Jehovah’s Witness and she was advised to keep her distance from “worldly” people like her cousin. So I never got to know her. But I found out that she had recently moved near me with her husband (also a former JW) and I decided to make contact. This would be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
I was so excited when I finally saw her again. It was a relatively short conversation, but we made plans for she and her husband to have dinner at my home. This would start what has now been a wonderful new family relationship.
She is now an apostate of the Witnesses and has thus lost contact with much of her close family. Thankfully her father also left the Witnesses and her brother never got in. Sadly, however, her mother has little contact with her and neither do some of her other formerly close cousins.
Our families see each other regularly now. We get together to have dinners, play games, relax on the porch and even help each other learn new things. They are great people and we are rapidly becoming close family even without religious belief among any of us.
We’ve also gotten to know several others or even just gotten to know them better as we’ve become more open about our lack of religious belief.
The phrase “coming out” has classically been applied to the gay community members who at some point “come out of the closet” and announce their sexual orientation to a community that may be hostile to this way of life. The phrase is used by non-believers as well because the situation is similar. Most religious believers are taught that atheists are “the enemy”. They are godless heathens, wicked and untrustworthy. They are impure sinners and cold, heartless, unhappy, directionless, self-serving people living lives with no meaning who desire nothing more than to destroy and persecute the righteous believers and everything they stand for.
At least, that’s what many believers are taught. So “coming out” to a person who holds your former beliefs can be quite difficult. Not only are you now exactly the type of person they are out to save, you have done so conscientiously and your very existence is insulting to their way of life. Some family get distraught or afraid, now afraid of your impending doom in the fires of Hell. They grieve as if they have lost a loved one. Of course it’s even worse if you are baptized in some faiths, where if you leave the church, you are excommunicated and even shunned by your closest family and friends. You now stand to risk your entire life, including your spouse, parents and even children. This is enough to make one decide to never reveal their true beliefs, or lack thereof.
In fact, if you are reading this and you are currently hiding your apostasy to maintain your relationships, I commend you. It may be a form of dishonesty, but in this case I truly believe that the ends justify the means. You are showing that your love for those closest to you is more important than being open about your lack of belief. Feel free to contact us here at jwawaken if you need someone to talk to who will not judge you. But try not to feel guilty about “living a lie”. Love is more important than being open about a lack of religious belief.
We have been slowly coming out to friends and family. Most people have been really great and accepting. A fair number are non-believers themselves, more than we expected. In fact, I can say for certain that there are many more non-believers out there than you realize. They are walking among you, even in your church or place of worship, perhaps even the ones giving sermons, homilies or talks.
A few took the news kind of hard at first but have found grudging acceptance. We haven’t lost any friends over it yet, but that’s because we haven’t been forthcoming with those particular friends. We won’t be dishonest if it comes up, but at this point we’re content with a “need to know” basis.
A Year of Unprecedented Learning
My journey toward disbelief began as a major research project to find the underlying truth of my Christian beliefs. I wasn’t expecting to lose my faith, but rather to strengthen it through thorough research of history, theologians, the bible and many other historical documents. Even though this research did lead me to atheism, it hasn’t stopped. If anything, it kindled a desire to learn like I’ve never experienced before. I no longer believed the bible to be the “Word of God”, but I still wanted to know what it really was. What the real truth behind it it all is. To put it simply, I’ve become a hobbyist biblical historian and if I could, I would actually get a formal education in the subject.
This intense thirst for knowledge has led me to read more of the bible in the last year than I have in perhaps the last 10, if not more. I’ve purchased three new translations (in case you’re wondering, New Jerusalem Bible, New Revised Standard Version and The Bible with Sources Revealed, a translation of the Pentateuch). I’ve read some of the standard atheist writings, such as The God Delusion, End of Faith and God is Not Great, and while some excellent points were made in those, they weren’t as fascinating to me as The Evolution of God, Breaking the Spell and On The Historicity of Jesus. I’ve ready many papers, articles and treatises on biblical scholarship and history, religions of the Ancient Near East, the psychology of belief and most recently on how one proves history. I’ll provide links to these at the end of this article. I’ve even read Christian apologetics, biblical commentaries, passages of various religious texts such as the Jewish Talmud, the Book of Mormon, other Jewish and Christian texts such as the Nag Hammadi Scriptures (Gnostic Gospels), the Books of Enoch (very interesting reading) and writings of the Apostolic Fathers like Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp.
Becoming an Activist
In some ways, I’m a “live and let live” person. I’m perfectly happy to let most people continue about their lives as religious believers as long as they aren’t hurting others or making someone else’s live difficult or miserable or worst of all, killing in the name of their god. At the same time, I want to stand and be counted among the apostates and non-believers of the world. I want the world to realize that atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers or whatever you want to call them are misunderstood and that the picture of them painted by religions is simply wrong.
But there are some religious practices and ways of thinking that I find abhorrent and I will take a stand against them. Things like shunning and excommunication, prohibiting birth control, denying children medical attention, misogyny, racism, denying freedoms to others, willful ignorance, slowing the progress of science, charlatanry, discouragement of education, fostering child abuse and the abusers, promoting guilt, shame, self-deprecation and low-self esteem, giving credit for all good things to god and all bad things to people, promotion of sexual ignorance and vilifying sexuality.
That’s why I write for this site and why, as I continue to be more public about my own lack of belief, that I intend to continue my activism and my own personal research. Who know, I may even get a degree in history.
After a year, things are great
I am very happy today. My family life is better than it has ever been. There are even more “I love you’s” and hugs. We don’t let little things bother us. I am less stressed, I spend much more time with people, I put forth more effort to help people and I give much more practical advice where before I may have encouraged “taking it to God” or praying about it.
I don’t spend much money and save a lot, so I don’t worry about money. I live modestly without luxuries that are now commonplace in America, like cable TV, big SUVs or trucks, man caves, season tickets to sporting events, gym memberships and gas-powered everything. I live a little more like my grandparents did. I don’t let things go to waste. I re-use and buy used. I don’t follow trends or try to be like others. I cook my own meals and avoid fast food. I save a lot of money and plan to retire much earlier than usual, even on a rather modest salary. I live this way because it is healthier, simpler and less stressful.
My relationship with my wife is even closer than ever, which says a lot. I already couldn’t imagine our relationship getting better, but it has in ways we could never have thought. Where before we attributed our relationship to “God’s Plan”, we now see it as something more. When it was “God’s Plan”, then our marriage was just part of some cosmic script. It was going to happen because God wanted it to. Now our marriage is great because my wife and I have made it that way through love, respect, honesty, playfulness, working as a team and an unceasing passion for each other. We are together because the circumstances of our lives led us to meeting and we gave each other the chance. We saw the qualities in each other and started a positive feedback loop that continues today over a decade later.
I have an appreciation for life that I never have before. When I look at all the multitudes of creatures and plants out there and think that I am biologically related to them all, it is a tremendous feeling of being connected. I’m a part of a huge family on earth, from the tiniest insect to the gargantuan dinosaurs of millions of years past. Life can be ugly, brutal and violent, but it it also beautiful, breathtaking and full of moments of love and caring.
I still see grandeur in the universe when I gaze at the stars and marvel at the beauty and humbling size of the universe. In fact, I would say I find it even more amazing as a natural occurrence than I did when I believed it was simply spoken into existence. It’s true that we don’t have all the answers about the mechanics of the universe. Not only am I fine with this, but this makes life more exciting and challenging. There are answers to be found and discoveries to be made, many of which could benefit humankind in ways we can’t yet imagine.
I no longer need god. Maybe I did in the past. Maybe all of humanity did and still does. Maybe as a species our imagined gods helped us through difficult times but we’re now in a phase where we’re outgrowing it. We’re finding our answers in science and philosophy and becoming more comfortable with the gray areas of reality instead of trying to force the universe into black and white categories.
This year without god has been great. I’m very hopeful of another great one.
Books I’ve Consumed in my First Year of Apostasy
A few of these are typical atheist books read by many after leaving the faith or during heavy questioning.
- The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
- The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright
- God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens
- The End of Faith, by Sam Harris
- Godless, by Dan Barker
- Life Driven Purpose, by Dan Barker
- God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, Dan Barker
- Life After Faith, by Jerry DeWitt
- Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett
- Caught in the Pulpit, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola
- Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer
- Deconverted, Seth Andrews
- Sacred Cows, Seth Andrews
- The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins
- A Universe from nothing, Lawrence Krauss
- Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne
- Faith versus Fact, Jerry Coyne
- Nailed, by David Fitzgerald
- Proving History, Richard Carrier
- On the Historicity of Jesus, Richard Carrier
- The Case Against the Case for Christ, Robert M. Price
- Who Write the Bible, Richard Elliott Friedman
- The Bible with Sources Revealed, Richard Elliott Friedman