This week, The Closet Atheist has asked me, her boyfriend, to share with you my experience in becoming an atheist. To understand my background, I should touch on parents’ first. My mother’s family was Serbian Orthodox, and my father was a United Methodist all his life. He and his brothers went every Sunday because their father (my grandfather) was a United Methodist pastor.
Growing Up in Two Churches
I was baptized into my mother’s Serbian Orthodox church, the same church that my parents got married in, despite my grandfather’s wishes that these ceremonies be performed at his United Methodist church. While growing up, though, we did attend a United Methodist church almost every Sunday. We would go to the Serbian Orthodox Church for Easter and Christmas every year since their calendars differ from the United Methodists’ calendars. These services were so miserable that as a child, I still would have preferred to be at school. Instead, I had to sit in rock-hard wooden pews all dressed up in a stiff, uncomfortable black suit, not allowed to do anything but sit down in the huge, bare sanctuary, be quiet, and try to pay attention for every 2-hour service.
This proved to be a lot harder for my brother and sister than it was for me, but I never understood why this church was so different than the church we usually went to. For example, they had this book, and half of it was in English and the other half was in another language (possibly Latin or Serbian), and they would switch in between the two throughout the service. As if it wasn’t already hard enough to pay attention, I also didn’t understand half of what was being said…or eerily chanted from high up in the balcony as if by disembodied voices. People would also take communion and kiss a picture of Jesus, which I thought was gross, mostly for sanitary reasons. The only thing I enjoyed was when they would walk down the aisle and swing the incense censer, which made the sanctuary smell amazing.
Every summer, my siblings and I went to United Methodist church camps. I was also confirmed in the United Methodist Church. Throughout my childhood, I always swung back and forth on my religious views. My mother was a large influence on me throughout most of my childhood, and I adopted her skepticism, but I mostly just went along with whatever everyone around me was doing. My dad was stricter in enforcing religion, and he even made me go into Boy Scouts, which is religious. For one of my badges I had to learn about another religion, so easily my dad took me to my mother’s Serbian Orthodox Church. As I learned more about the Serbian Orthodox Church, I became aware that behind the altar there was a room that only boys were allowed to enter. Obviously, I was very curious as to what they could be hiding that for whatever reason girls weren’t even allowed to see. Finally, I was able to see that room and boy was it disappointing: it was nothing but light blue walls and religious pictures that filled both the room and almost the entire wall.
My life changed significantly in middle school when my parents got a divorce. I didn’t see my mom as much, but I remained religiously skeptical. By this time, I had learned about science and that there were people that did not believe in God, and that there were scientific theories about alternate beginnings to our universe. I didn’t really care, I personally just played along with believing in God, especially since my grandfather was a pastor and most of my family is religious. I always had my siblings and my mom with whom I could discuss our honest thoughts on religion.
In tenth grade I did learn about another option: agnosticism. I was intrigued that there was an in-between view that basically held that the existence of a god or gods can and cannot be proven, so you can admit that you don’t know. From that point on, I still questioned it, but I went about life thinking that I may be agnostic. Most of my life consisted of doing my own thing, staying busy with school and band. We would occasionally go to church and I would just fake it, and although my siblings and I would express how much we did not want to go, we always ended up going to appease our father and grandfather.
My (Atheist) Lutheran Girlfriend
Once again, my life changed. My senior year of high school, I asked my friend if she would make me the happiest man in the world by being my girlfriend. Our love story is great, but I will skip to where religion comes in. She had told me beforehand that her family was very religious, and I was all right with that. Up to that point I always faked it when I needed to anyways, and I figured I would and could do it for the rest of my life. I did not know much about Lutherans, but they were closer theologically to the United Methodist Church than the Serbian Orthodox Church, so I was fine with it.
I met her mother and found out how fervently religious she really is, and I also met her cool brother-in-law who happened to be studying to become an LCMS pastor. Her sisters were very religious as well. Naturally, I figured she also was, but I could tell that she was just not as enthusiastic about it as the rest were. Then one night, it happened. She told me that she felt like she trusted me enough to tell me a secret. She said “You know that whole Jesus thing?” I responded with a simple “Yeah.” And she stated “well… I don’t really believe in all that.” She had no idea how I was going to respond, but I said that I didn’t totally believe it either. We talked about it for a bit, and I could tell this was a much bigger thing for her than it was for me since she has never told anyone before, while I had always had my siblings and mom to talk to.
Eventually, we went to our separate colleges, and she picked a small private Christian college, because she really wanted a small school and thought she could handle a little bit of Jesus here and there, like she has been doing most of her life. Little did she know, it was way more than she bargained for and would drive her up the wall on a daily basis, and I became her only outlet about it all, since I was the only one to know that she “didn’t really believe in all that.” This is when she discovered atheism, and she became more or less obsessed with the idea, and she was constantly reading, watching, and learning all about it. I can’t say I blame her, since she felt so trapped at college. I, on the other hand, went to a public university and was not trapped in a Christian bubble, so I have never been in that situation.
Becoming an Atheist (and a Lutheran)
Then came one night, when we were sitting in my car as I was dropping her off at school, and she asked me exactly what I think of religion, like what belief system I identified with. This is a question I never gave a lot of thought to, as I’d always been skeptical and disinterested with religion. I had responded that I think I would consider myself a 50/50 agnostic. At this point, after her studying and thorough consideration, she had begun to consider herself an atheist. Being impartial on the matter, I was fine with this. But for her, telling her that I was agnostic, you would have thought that I told her that her cat had died. It was the end of the world, she was upset, and I couldn’t understand why. She then went on to explain why some atheists can consider agnosticism as more of a cop-out. Being surrounded by extreme Christians, she didn’t want her only confidant to even consider the possibility of the Christian god. I asked what made her believe so surely that there was no god as opposed to being an agnostic. Over the next few days, we discussed it and brought many facts to the table, and in the end, I agreed that agnosticism could in some ways be considered a cop-out. I then considered myself to be an atheist.
While at home I started to go to church with my girlfriend’s family. She said that if she had to go to church, then so did I; plus, her mother wouldn’t have been happy with her dating a heathen that didn’t attend church. My old United Methodist Church was trying to incorporate a more contemporary style to “attract a younger crowd,” and I found that if I had to go to church, I would rather sit through a more traditional service. After two years of attending her family’s Lutheran church, I was asked to join. Of course, I didn’t believe, but as I had my whole life, I faked it. I read the entire Lutheran Catechism, met with her pastor (who loved me and thought I was a great Christian role model), and was confirmed into the LCMS. Ironically, now I’m a confirmed or baptized member of not one, not two, but three Christian denominations, but what none of them know is that I’m really just an atheist underneath it all.
Lately, I have been reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and enjoy getting into conversations with my girlfriend about religion and atheism. Since I go to a secular school, my girlfriend spends a lot of time visiting me for a safe place away from all the religion. We support each other the best that we can, one way being that I gave her a Skeptic’s Annotated Bible and the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster for Christmas since there’s no one else that she could ask for these heathen gifts. I don’t know when will be the best time for either of us to come out as atheists, but I know how important it is to be honest with ourselves, and proud of who we really are. Sometimes I’ll encourage her to say out loud that she is an atheist, and sometimes she’ll even do it above a whisper. Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to say it in front of more people than just ourselves, but until then, we always have each other.
(Post title updated 7/18/21)