Growing up, I was fortunate to have parents who raised me in a religion-neutral environment. Well almost. When we were young, we said a ritual prayer before bed and before meals, but by my teens I had forgotten that we had ever done this. I attended a church service with my mother only once and was unaware that my parents had both been confirmed Anglicans. By the age of seventeen, I gave no thought to religion whatsoever. I was an insecure teenager with no discernible skills and a small group of friends, none of whom were particularly close. The summer after my grade 11 year, I began to work at a bible camp where I made a lot of friends and was exposed to the christian faith for the first time.
It was a turning point in my life and I began to go to church and read the bible. Although I was beginning to be exposed to christian values, I was still drinking to excess and behaving irresponsibly in other ways. I would add that the excessive drinking often took place with my 'christian' friends from the bible camp. Eventually, I asked God into my life and my newfound faith gave me what seemed to be a dramatic boost in confidence. At the time, I thought I had undergone some supernatural experience and was changed into a new person. In reality, I had found a supportive community for the first (but not the last) time in my life and my friendships were helping me to grow as a person. I began to attend church regularly. Meeting with longtime church members when I knew next to nothing about the christian faith is intimidating and it stifles one's inclination to ask questions revealing the obvious inconsistencies of the bible. The church's constant teaching that the bible is infallible means that you have to simply accept all the old testament stories in which whole races of people are slaughtered and many other such atrocities. When you are brave enough to question these events, you get trite responses such as "That race of people lived to show how much God loved the Jews.", "God works in mysterious ways." and other such nonsense. At the same time, you learn that God loves everyone. It must have taken a lot of 'tough love' to slaughter whole races of people.
Looking back now, I can't imagine how I bought into christianity. I went on to become a teacher and work at two different christian schools. I taught Sunday school. I led bible study groups. I was a youth leader for a number of youth groups. Ironically, teaching at a christian school was the beginning of the end of my faith. The subculture of a diverse, evangelical christian school includes people from many different branches of the christian faith. You see the best and the worst, but mostly the worst. It became evident very quickly that the people I met there were so wrapped up in their faith, they were completely unaware of problems of the world outside. They would refute evolution on the basis that there was no evidence for it, but they restricted their studies to the bible and spiritual books and could never have come across evidence of evolution in their readings or their sheltered social circles if they had several billion years to do so (not to mention five thousand or so). They supported the fact that Israel occupies Palestine and oppresses the Palestinian people in every way possible. This was acceptable to them because the Jews are "God's Chosen People." Obviously, things haven't changed much since the days of the old testament. Other christians I knew supported politicians who claimed to be christians. They knew nothing of these politicians' personal beliefs, their backgrounds or their political history. There was no analysis. We were supposed to vote for the Reform Party (Canada) en masse because some of their candidates claimed to be Christian. My suggestion to my christian friends that they should evaluate them as politicians and analyze their backgrounds were met with blank stares. Furthermore, the christian schools' approach to thorny issues like evolution, evil and suffering in a world with an 'omnipotent' god, Halloween and many other things were to avoid talking about the issues so that no one would be offended. This pattern would be repeated in other settings such as the various youth groups that I was involved in. Bringing up these issues, I was told, would alienate certain families. It would be far better to focus on other subjects. The fact that no one, including the christian scholars whose works I had been reading, could answer the questions I had, began to hammer more nails into the coffin of my faith. This process took many years. The multitudes of political battles I witnessed in the churches I attended, included behavior that no intelligent christian who has read the bible could condone. This hypocritical behavior took place at the highest levels of the churches I attended without exception. Teachers I worked with at the christian schools would go to chapel and sing songs about love and then the moment they were back in the staff room, they would engage in behavior that included envy, pride, gossip, backstabbing, revenge and other vices. No one even seemed to see a conflict. Christians have often told me not to judge god based on the behavior of 'fallen christians'. The church teaches that the holy spirit comes into your body when you ask god into your heart. Presumably if one-third of the holy trinity rests in my physical body, I should have some advantage when it comes to resisting temptation or making the right decisions. Although I am not basing this statement on a scientific study, twenty years of anecdotal experience in both christian and secular settings has taught me that there is absolutely no basis for the idea that christians behave better than atheists, agnostics and people of other faiths. In fact, if you look at the idea historically (the crusades, witch hunts, the 'Troubles' in Ireland, to name a few), it is clear that christians have committed a shocking number of atrocities in god's name. Of course, atheists have been responsible for atrocities, too. The difference is that atheists are not claiming to have the holy spirit living in them. The details of the event that led me to finally throw off the shackles of the church are unimportant. In brief, it came down to a couple of people who didn't like me or the way I ran the youth groups I was leading. Lies and half-truths led to a request from a representative of the church council for me to move on and I did. Interestingly, when it turned out that I had support from many of the parents whose children were in my youth groups, the propaganda machine was fired up and the truth began to take on several shades of grey. After many years of witnessing others experience such treatment, I realized that my turn had come.
Retrospectively, I think that it was the best thing that could have happened to me. In the church I was taught that the truth shall set us free. In fact, it was the lack of it that set me free. The fact that people were willing to slice and dice the truth, not to mention making bald-faced lies, convinced me that I was better off without the church. It is worth pointing out that it was not this one event, but literally dozens of such events involving others that made me begin to question the teachings of the church. These episodes made me wonder what I truly knew for sure. After much reflection, I realized that prayer was just what I had always known in my heart - an empty one-way exercise. Also known as talking to yourself. When I began to really examine all the 'answers to prayer' I had experienced, I realized that an answer to prayer is when you get what you want. All the times I had felt that God answered my prayers, 'luck' or 'coincidence' had resulted in me getting what I wanted. Because when you get what you want, god is answering your prayers and when you don't get what you want, God has some mysterious reason that only he could understand. The newborn baby that died. "God loved him so much that He took him up to Heaven." Perhaps such an answer would comfort a distraught and somewhat feeble-minded person, but it only fed my skepticism. The whole process of questioning my faith probably took over ten years. The final incident was the little push I needed to help me to decide to leave the church. The analysis of my experiences over those twenty years was sped up by the web of lies and deceit that marked my last experience in the church.
To those christians that may respond that this episode is sad, I would like to say at the outset that what is sad is that it took so long for me to realize that I had been duped into believing a fairy tale. It is nearly tragic that it took twenty years to learn that one can live a guilt-free life. On the positive side, I truly believe that my life is richer for having been involved in the church. Besides learning values and the importance of serving others, I also can do something that almost no christians can truly do. I can evaluate the church and the bible's teachings from the dual perspectives of an outsider and an insider. I have a rich life and am thankful that I can move ahead knowing that my future will not be clouded with superstition, but be enriched with understanding based on observable evidence and reason.