From Religious Credulity to Healthy Skepticism
This is the second of a multi-part series detailing my path from Christianity to non-belief. Click here to read the previous chapter, Why I Disliked the Family Dog.
The Christian church comprised the bulk of my social life when I was young. When I was in grade school during the 1970s I attended church three times per week: twice on Sunday – the morning and evening services – and a Wednesday night Bible study. I served as a youth counselor for the younger kids at Vacation Bible School. I could even recite the books of the Old Testament backwards – a feat I occasionally brag about to this day. First, a fellow youth-group member recited the New Testament in reverse order in front of the entire church congregation. He began where the world ends, Revelations, and worked backward through the Pauline epistles. The gospels were easy, of course. Then it was my turn. I wrestled with the prophets. The prophets gave me trouble – but they gave everyone trouble. I would then wander, like an old Hebrew, into the Pentateuch, arriving at the beginning of it all: Genesis. For this feat I was awarded a chocolate candy bar, consumed before the pastor’s sermon ended.
I accepted the bible as literally true. Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. I was awed at the age of Methuselah at almost 1,000 years. I wondered what it would be like stuck inside a whale for three whole days. Noah and his ark. The Tower of Babel. Moses. King David. These stories are, to this day, fascinating and intriguing.
I went door-to-door throughout the neighborhood inviting people to attend our church. I thought people didn’t believe because they just hadn’t been told. If you just sat them down and explained it, then, well, they’d slap palm to forehead and exclaim, “That’s how it works!” Then they’d get down on their knees, confess that they have sinned and “fallen short of the glory of God,” and “invite Jesus to come into their hearts.” It was as simple as that. People were just uninformed – they’d just never heard of Jesus and the cross and the resurrection. They were just to busy working at their jobs, walking the dog, washing dishes or doing laundry.
I was baptized on the banks of the Sandy river in Oregon one summer afternoon. Church members stood on the shore while I waded into the cold river in a t-shirt and jeans. Our pastor, pastor Bill, placed a small cloth over my nose and mouth and gently lowered me into the river. I walked slowly to the shore wet and shivering. I remember this as one of the biggest rites of passage I undertook during my early years. It was a display of my spiritual commitment to god and to the community – and to myself.
I entered high school, and spent my after-school hours running. I captained the cross country team and ran for the track team. During the winter I woke before sunrise to practice for the swim team. I might have studied, although I can’t remember. I discovered girls, although they had a hard time finding me. My church attendance waned.
I recall sitting in the park with my high-school sweetheart, idly sitting on swings, chatting. A man walked up to us and started preaching the gospel. He was a nice, pleasant gentleman. I knew every bit as much as he did, and answered all his questions about scripture correctly. He complimented me on my knowledge of the gospels. I even think my girlfriend was impressed.
I then attended an in-state secular college, Oregon State University, where I was introduced to the lifestyles and values from a variety of people, some Christian, but many decidedly not. The arbitrary rules and customs imposed by religious belief were difficult to practice in this new milieu of clashing values, aggressive opinion and new, provocative information.
I changed my major six times in college. I studied commercial and industrial fitness first, before deciding to pursue a career as an athletic trainer. This didn’t last long, as I found the OSU football locker room too intimidating for five-foot-seven ex-distance runner weighing 155 pounds. I switched to political science, and then changed my mind a few more times before eventually settling into technical journalism with a minor in anthropology. I’m still mystified at the whole process. But as soon as I published my first story in the school newspaper and read my byline for the first time – “By Alan Litchfield” – I was hooked. Seeing my name in print felt nice. It didn’t matter that the article was just a few column inches on local ant farms, written so poorly that the editor rewrote the lead.
I graduated, and fell in love. My girlfriend and I bought a house, and then we married. I recall the exact day I prayed for the final time: Sunday, September 17, 2000, the day I witnessed Pope John Paul II give mass in front of the Vatican. My wife and I were married earlier in the month, and we honeymooned in Italy. I promised my Catholic godmother that I would pray for her when I visited the Vatican. This is what I wrote in my journal:
In the middle of the mass I said a prayer for my godmother, my aunt Judy. I thanked god for every moment she was on earth, and that she was my godmother. I said I was grateful for her spirit of joy and hope, and that she was important to Shannon and I.
When I finished a woman nudged me and shook my hand. It was time to turn and greet the person next to you.
I now read that journal entry, now 12 years later, as if it were written by a total stranger. I can’t recognize my younger self, and I marvel at his credulity.
Our first child arrived when I turned 38. Six years ago. Not long after that, a second one. I soon realized that I was a partner in teaching two young children about life. But what did I believe? I had no idea. I realized at that point I had been merely following the herd my entire life. My worldview had been cultivated like my course of study in college, in an arbitrary, haphazard manner.
I hadn’t a clue what I believed, or even why. At some point during my distant past I was given a bible, told some fantastic stories, and told to believe. So, I believed. Any cracks in this foundation of alleged knowledge were cemented by faith – whatever that meant.
A pair of drooling, hungry children screaming for attention and a diaper change has a way of revealing the inadequacies of one’s worldview. So, I did the first thing I could think of, I went to the local Christian bookstore and bought the cheapest bible on the rack, and started reading. I was in for a big surprise.