Tell us about your relationship with religion when you were growing up.
I’m fortunate to have grown up in a very loving family. I have two older sisters and one younger brother, and my parents are still happily married. We lived in a small town in northern Minnesota, and my parents and grandparents on both sides were very active in conservative churches. They sang in the choirs, were members of prayer and Bible study groups, and attended church every week.
What led you to become an Evangelical Christian?
My interest in Christianity was sparked when I was in eighth grade. As I’m sure many people did, around this time I started to question who I wanted to become. I was getting involved with a “Mean Girls”-esque clique at school, pouting at home in true middle-child fashion, and not understanding much about the world around me. My parents, likely sick of my poor attitude, urged me to join our church’s youth group. After meeting new people there, I started to feel very accepted and comfortable at the Wednesday night meetings. I regularly attending these for the next couple years, then went with the group of about thirty teens and a few supervisors on a mission trip to Cincinnati, Ohio.
After putting on a free car wash, cleaning a senior citizen center, and feeding the homeless over the course of our week there, I felt incredibly uplifted from helping others for the first time in my life. I assumed that inner glow was from God, and decided to devote my life to him. In Christian terms this was known as “accepting Christ as my personal savior” and “asking him into my heart.”
What was your life like when you were an Evangelical Christian? What did you believe? How did you interact with people?
Being an Evangelical Christian – committing everything to “sharing the truth” about God with others – was great in some ways for a couple years. At church I continued to find a lot of the emotional support that all teens crave, and my new found faith kept me from trying drugs or drinking. However, looking back, I can see that much of my “blind faith” back then was simply ignorance. I lived in a sort of fairy-tale world, thinking of God as an invisible, intangible best friend, and all the non-Christians around me were lost souls whom he had placed in my life to help. I read the Bible almost like a horoscope, trying to fit its positive lessons into my own life, while ignoring the confusing and violent parts.
As an Evangelical Christian, I traveled on several more mission trips, during which our group would hold after-school Bible-teaching programs for children and knock on strangers’ doors (the outreach tactic also utilized by Jehovah’s Witnesses) to discuss our faith with them. Back at home, I became obsessed with being as Christ-like as possible, constantly looking for opportunities to talk about God with my high school classmates, and trying to be as “pure” as possible. This meant I didn’t swear, fool around with guys, drink, smoke, watch R-rated movies or listen to much non-Christian music. The cliché “What Would Jesus Do?” question really did dominate my personality – I disciplined myself by imagining Jesus with me all the time! This lasted into college.
An overwhelming factor in my life through all this was guilt. It was rewarding to try to help others, of course, but picturing God watching and listening to me – even as a loving, forgiving father-figure – was difficult. Even while fully believing that I was going to heaven and that I had God on my side, guilt was a motivating factor for most of my actions, and looking back I see that this stunted me from truly being and loving myself.
When did you start questioning your beliefs?
When I was twenty, my perception of the world really began to change. There’s a stereotype that goes around in many conservative church circles – that when “good Christian kids” go off to public universities, they lose their faith to a dangerous, liberal agenda. Several young adults I personally know slowly became disinterested in or disillusioned about religious ideals during this period. Many still believe in a general idea of God, but don’t have the emotional dependence on prayer and church attendance they did as teenagers. My family and Christian friends like to label me as one of those that have “turned their backs on Jesus.” However, my journey out of Christianity wasn’t about rebelling or just losing interest, but about searching for God and instead discovering the beauty in other people and cultures.
As a sophomore in college, I met several incredible people who opened my mind about spirituality without even knowing it. I’ll describe just one of the dozens here. My roommate that year was a twenty-year-old devout Muslim from Bangladesh. She and I spent countless nights discussing our individual beliefs, and I was surprised to watch her live a lifestyle almost identical to mine: she prayed daily, was committed to being a virgin until marriage, and joined a religious
A pivotal moment in my life happened one spring evening when I was doing homework in our dorm. She came in to gather her books, and excitedly told me that a group of her Islamic friends was meeting to eat a traditional Bangladeshi meal, pray about their final exams, and then study for a few hours.
After she left, it hit me that a few nights before, my Campus Crusade for Christ (a widespread Christian club) friends and I had done almost the exact same thing – but for a god with a different name. She and I were alike in so many ways – living to worship God and help others – and yet Christians are supposed to think that Muslims will eventually be eternally punished by God if they don’t accept Christ. And, conversely, Muslims are supposed to think that Christians will eventually be eternally punished by Allah.
It dawned on me: if her system of beliefs could be so misled, why couldn’t mine? I suddenly found myself completely unable to believe my fun, loving, caring, humble, Islamic roommate would someday be rejected by God and sent to hell.
After this night, and after getting to know several other amazing, selfless non-Christians, I slowly began to question absolutely everything in the Bible and the church sermons I’d heard over the years. When I asked my closest, most intelligent Christian friends about standard teachings, I was unnerved to discover their answers didn’t really run deeper than, “I don’t know – just try to have more faith in God” and “That’s up to God, and we’re not supposed to test him.”
The more I searched and prayed for clarity, the more I felt I was just talking to myself, and only finding answers that contradicted the Bible. So I conducted an experiment: stop praying completely for two weeks. This happened to coincide with my college graduation and tons of stress. I would stop myself from speaking to “God” when I was overwhelmed, though, and instead give myself a pep talk or call a friend. The two weeks passed, then two more, then two months, and so on, and somehow the ever-present guilt I’d experienced began to dissipate. I felt less worried in general, and was still just as happy and grateful for my life, without ever talking to God or asking for his help.
Nothing really changed – except my emotional makeup. I began to gain confidence in myself instead of worrying about what God wanted, and I started thinking once again about who I wanted to become, not just about how I was supposed to act.
This continued for the next year and a half, and I kept discussing these topics with anyone and everyone I encountered. I couldn’t get enough of learning about different worldviews, and as I did, I began to see that they all had both positive and negative aspects, and none were provably truer or more valuable than the others. I also discovered I was still able to love and give to others without doing it in the name of God. Post-Hurricane Katrina, I went with a church organization to volunteer in Louisiana, and it was unforgettable. It didn’t matter that I no longer believed in the god they were serving; we were all trying to help others.
How would you define your religious beliefs now?
I consider my views to be somewhere between those of atheists and agnostics.
Due to my experiences, I am an atheist emotionally. I don’t sense or believe that there are any gods in the universe. I see our lives and emotions – everything on earth, really – as physical actions and chemical reactions.
For instance, I believe my sense of Jesus’ presence back when I was a Christian was just a result of my own thought patterns. Talking to Jesus, like a child playing with an imaginary friend, often calmed me and gave me a feeling of comfort. This wasn’t because a spiritual figure was actually listening to and caring about me, but due to the fact I was sorting things out in my own mind and picturing a supernatural force helping me.
Nowadays, rather than pray, I reflect on my problems and goals by writing about them, talking with a friend, or thinking them through while exercising – and the resulting uplifting sensations and comfort are the same as, if not better than, those I felt after praying.
Still, though my emotions are in line with atheism, I am mentally agnostic. Neither myself nor anyone else on earth has ever been able to prove the existence or nonexistence of a god. Therefore, Christianity could be true! Islam could be the correct religion! Hinduism might present the one right path to heaven! And so on. Or we could all be wrong – a very different god could be shaking her head at us, or maybe there’s no divinity at all. Because I’m still open to possibilities, and am eager to learn more while personally unable to prove anything, I’m quite agnostic.
I do find myself shuddering at the creeds spread by most religions, though, and adamantly oppose doctrines that encourage racism, homophobia, sexism, violence, and other beliefs that harm or belittle people. I think if you threw humanism, atheism, and agnosticism in a bowl and mixed it all together, you’d end up with my current worldview!
What advice would you give to others who are struggling with their faith?
Question everyone and everything every day, with a heartfelt goal of finding answers.
Don’t accept weak, pat answers, even from the best-intentioned people. Rather, consider why their responses are weak in the first place.
Be kind and encouraging to the person you’re conversing with, and be sensitive about these topics! No one enjoys having an opposing opinion crammed down their throat, and you don’t want to hurt people or burn bridges.
Embrace discomfort. It’s not always fun to read a different religion’s holy text or attend a worship service, but you’ll learn loads about others and your own upbringing.
Accept that you’ll never have all the answers, but let this spur you on to the ones you can. Apathy has never helped anyone grow.
If you honestly seek truth, you will learn things in ways and at times you never expected. Transcendental moments do often happen in memorable settings – like while engaged in deep conversation around a bonfire, or while meditating to music – but some of my most helpful revelations have come through watching a sitcom, or having a nice chat with customers in the bookstore where I used to work.
Struggling with faith is a fantastic stage to find yourself in. From here, you only have more wisdom to gain!
I love life and other people infinitely more than I did before, and have accomplished things I never would have if I hadn’t become an agnostic/atheist. Thanks for letting me share my story!Any (respectful!) questions for Ashlee? What has been your experience with religion? How did you come to your current views?