When an individual becomes a Christian or renews his faith in Christ, it’s often the occasion for a public declaration followed by public rejoicing. This generally happens in a church setting or at least with a group of like-minded Christians, frequently accompanied by numerous “Hallelujahs” and “Praise the Lords.” It’s high fives all around. Contrast that with what typically happens when one relinquishes his or her religious faith in favor of atheism. Generally, one keeps the news to oneself, at least initially: No public declarations, no hallelujahs, no high fives. In this essay I would like to explore the reasons for this difference in the context of my own journey.
In my initial essay for this blog I described the time, when I was a junior in high school, that I realized that I had lost my Christian faith and become an agnostic. But, despite the good news, there were no hallelujahs, no celebrations with friends, no slaps on the back. Instead, I told no one--not my friends, not my teachers, and certainly not my family--keeping the change to myself for a number of years.
That’s not to say that I was unhappy with this change. In fact, as I have said before, this realization was a real cause for joy, for celebration, if only privately. Not only was I released from the paranoid trappings of my faith’s (Seventh-day Adventism) doctrines, but I was excited by the fact that I had learned something that all fit together and in a rational way. It was as if I had figured out a mathematical proof. (Anyone who has experienced that intellectual satisfaction knows what I am talking about.) So why didn’t I tell anyone?
First, while the final link in the realization that I was no longer a Christian happened in a single moment, the intellectual process leading up to that realization had occurred over an extended period. I had been doing a lot of reading, particularly of secular science, on my own but without sharing any of that with others. One book in particular, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, by Martin Gardner (a real intellectual hero of mine), stands out in my memory, as it devoted a chapter to the misguided teachings of Ellen White and the Adventist church, particularly with respect to the principles of evolution. So, while the recognition of my philosophical change occurred in a moment, the process had been a gradual one.
Second, I simply didn’t know anyone else who was not a Christian. No one I knew would understand, on either an intellectual or an emotional level, what I was talking about. Virtually all of my friends were part of the Adventist community and, as far as I knew, their faith remained solid. There was a real danger that anything I might have said to a classmate would find its way to the faculty at the Battle Creek Academy. And I certainly couldn’t say anything directly to my teachers. That would have created all sorts of havoc. There would have been meetings with the principal or other school officials that would have included my parents. Imagine, if you will, the scene: arguments from scriptural authority, warnings of perdition, holding of hands in a circle, fervid prayers for me to see the light and return to the “Truth.” Most importantly, I couldn’t tell my family. My sisters simply wouldn’t have understood and might have told my parents. Certainly, the last person I would want to tell was my mother. I knew how devout she was, and I knew that my loss of faith would break her heart.
Finally, at the time I was just a teenager, a shy, bookish kid who was just trying to fit in with his classmates. There was no way that I wanted to stand out as a nonbeliever among devout Christians.
As it turned out, I didn’t tell anyone of my change of belief through the remaining year and a half of high school. I was clearly in the closet. That changed, though, when I got to college, despite the fact that I attended Andrews University, a Seventh-day Adventist institution. I wish I had a better recollection of how that transition occurred, but I do recall a growing confidence in my point of view that resulted in numerous discussions (arguments) on such subjects as free will vs. determinism and evolution vs. creationism. And by my senior year I was having discussions (again, read arguments) with select faculty members. But it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I finally admitted my loss of faith to my mother. At first she was devastated, but she in time she got over that and never relinquished her hope that I would return to her faith. And I am thankful for that.
© 2014 John M. Phillips