An Open Letter to My Youth Pastor about Losing My Christian Faith
Dear Pastor Steve,
I am writing you this letter to share my testimony, to share my story of continually seeking the truth and of losing my Christian faith. It has taken me a long time to get to a place where I can reflect on my experience with Christianity in a way that is clear-eyed and fair, seeing both the good and the bad in the right balance. My hope is to share this with you in an honest and open way that reflects the joy, light, love, meaning, and purpose that fill my life today.
I am writing this letter to you not out of anger or resentment but because I hold you in high regard. I admire your character, your dedication to your ministry, your love for your family, and your endless patience with the annoying middle and high school version of me. I am deeply grateful for the investment you made in me as a kid and young adult. While I don’t feel warm and fuzzy feelings about the dogma and baggage I carried from the beliefs I took onboard, I don’t hold any of this against you personally because I believe that you were and are acting in good faith (pun intended). I believe that you believe in the truth of the Bible and that you are doing the Lord’s work here on earth. How can I fault you for that? While I don’t believe in the God of the Bible anymore, I do still believe in you. I am filled with feelings of kindness, love, and best wishes for you, your family, and your ministry.
I’ve noticed that stories like mine, stories that start with religious belief and end without it, are often left untold. You and others in the church are then left to wonder about what happened to those of us who left the fold. You may wonder: Did we choose to follow our sin over God? Did we have a bad experience with the wrong church, or the wrong group of Christians? Or did we fall under the corrupting influence of Satan or the world? Nonbelievers aren’t called like Christians to evangelize, and there are lots of reasons to leave these sort of difficult conversations in the past, or at least to keep them private. But it has been helpful for me to hear other stories like mine, and I hope that my story might be helpful for others who are on a similar journey. Also, while the Bible says that “iron sharpens iron”, this turns out not to be strictly true. While engaging with perspectives similar to your own can hone your beliefs, it actually takes different ones, like iron against a stone, to sharpen them. In this way I hope that my story might also be helpful for believers who are interested in sharpening their beliefs against the perspective of someone who has experienced both sides of Christian faith.
Christianity in my life runs back further than I can remember. I was baptized as a baby in our Presbyterian Church and my family attended church every week throughout my childhood. I went to Christian preschool and Vacation Bible School in the summers. But it wasn’t until middle school, after you joined our church to lead the youth ministry, that I really started to “get it” and that living my faith became the most important thing in my life. During this time I was continually filled with deep introspection about my Christian values, concerned for the salvation of others, earnestly listening for the voice of God, and seeking to follow the guidance of the Bible and live a Godly life. I was a true believer. I confessed my sins, opened myself to the message of the gospel, opened myself to God’s mercy through Jesus, and as best I could tell I was born again. If anyone can be saved by grace through faith, then middle and high school Nathaniel was saved. But believing fully didn’t mean I never had any doubts. I remember searching my heart deeply at emotionally-charged conferences, questioning if my faith was complete and my salvation assured, wondering if perhaps I should pray the prayer to ask Jesus in one more time, just to be sure. I knew I believed, but I never knew if I believed quite as much as I should, and this pushed me to defend my faith even more vigorously.
In middle school, I regularly stayed after school to argue with my science teacher about evolution. I read Christian apologetics books that explained things like “micro vs. macro evolution” to help me make my case. I noticed that while many Christians were satisfied with purely theological explanations for life’s big questions, I wanted to square my beliefs with the facts of science and the world around me. I worked hard, did my research, and enthusiastically debated anyone on either side who would listen, eager to improve my arguments and strengthen my case. I was determined to find the truth and then to use my sharpened arguments to persuade non-believers over to my way of thinking. I was certain that this truth-seeking project was one that would strengthen, rather than threaten, my Christian faith.
My curiosity and skepticism continued throughout high school, and I tirelessly worked to build a bulwark of argument to protect my faith. I read “The Case for Christ” and other Christian apologetics books and sought out facts and narratives that would back up my faith with evidence. I saw the hand of the Creator in the Big Bang, evolution as God’s efficient mechanism for creation, and the fine-tuning of the universe as further evidence for a God who loves us and wants us to thrive. But while I found the intellectual challenge of apologetics and debate rewarding, I struggled, like many young men in our youth group, with purity.
I noticed that I was attracted to girls and I was constantly ashamed of my lustful thoughts. I drew clear boundaries with my high school girlfriend for our purity and stood by them, but these still fell short of the standard I felt was right for a Christian man. I knew that my boundaries were a compromise between my desires and God’s. Even though I’m pretty sure I made it through high school “more pure” than most kids do, I could feel that I was leading a double life. I had a standard of highest purity I professed in church, but another one that I lived by with lustful thoughts that I secretly indulged. Today I see more clearly that the thoughts I tried so hard to root out and suppress, and that filled me with guilt when I failed to suppress them, were actually just me being a normal teenage boy. It took a really long time to come to terms with all of the guilt and shame I carried for this, and I don’t think my experience in this area was atypical. This unhealthy conditioning was pernicious and hard to break, and this is one of the parts of my Christian past that I have the hardest time not feeling resentment about.
High school was also — though this sounds bizarre to me now — when the idea of Satan and demons became very real to me, after I experienced a supernatural event where I thought I had been visited by a demon. My mom had a similar experience to mine shortly after me and still believes to this day that this was a demonic presence that visited our home. I had been witnessing to a girl in my physics class who claimed to worship Satan, though now I suspect she was just toying with me (I was definitely a good mark for this sort of toying since I was very earnest in my attempts to show her the light). Even as I later questioned other areas of my faith, this supernatural demon event was one thing I could never explain in earthly terms. It wasn’t until many years later, long after I had lost my faith and resolved that this experience was just a mystery I would never fully understand, that I learned about sleep paralysis when my girlfriend (now wife) experienced the same thing. Sleep paralysis turns out to be a fairly common but very terrifying phenomenon with symptoms that mapped perfectly onto my experience. Sleep paralysis explained everything that I previously thought was supernatural including my feelings of panic, breathlessness, inability to move or speak, and even the visual hallucinations I saw in my bedroom. But at the time I believed I was on the front lines of a very literal spiritual war for souls.
All of these experiences played a role at the end of high school when I was faced with a choice about which college I would attend. I had a great scholarship offer to go to Messiah Christian College, or I could go to a secular school where my girlfriend and I could stay together. Although staying with my girlfriend was definitely part of the decision, I also knew deep down that this was a choice about whether I wanted to continue to surround myself with Christians or to branch out into a more secular environment. I remember standing on the stage at our church and telling our congregation that I had decided to go the secular school in order to shine a light for the gospel with the unsaved, but in my heart, I knew the path for my faith was far less certain. I still wanted very much to be a Christian and to believe, but I also knew that college would be a chance for me to test my beliefs and sort out the truth for myself.
When I went to college, I increasingly started to feel like an imposter around other Christians and I stopped attending church. I felt awkward sharing my growing skepticism with other believers and started to avoid conversations with other Christians about my beliefs. But I still earnestly sought the truth, so I continued to pray, read the Bible, and vigorously defend my Christian beliefs in discussions with my friends. I read a lot of Christian apologetics; in particular I enjoyed reading books by C.S. Lewis. I wanted very much to believe, and I continually prayed to ask God to reveal himself to me. I asked God to show me a sign that he existed, in both specific and vague requests, as I grasped desperately for anything to help prop up my feeble faith. But every prayer for God to reveal himself to me came up empty. And I felt my faith drifting away, with no amount of reading the Bible or praying that could stop it.
What shocked me at the time wasn’t so much what had changed but what hadn’t: Me. And my life. I had always taken for granted that every good thing about me and my life was irreversibly intertwined with God, and that things without God would be far, far worse. But now I could see clearly that really nothing was different at all. I was neither better nor worse, my virtues and flaws were the same, and my behavior and moral grounding were the same too. In fact, I even started to feel a little better as I gradually carried less guilt and shame and felt less of a compulsion to police my thoughts for crimes against God. Over a couple years in college my faith simply evaporated, my Sundays were free for other pursuits, and I didn’t notice a single downside in my life. Actually, there was one major downside when I eventually shared what had happened with my parents. They were and still are deeply concerned about the implications of my loss of faith both for this life and for eternity. And of course, I feel bad for how this must make you feel as well.
I don’t think my loss of faith was driven by a bad experience I had with church or other Christians, or by a philosophical argument that convinced me Christianity was wrong. Rather I think my faith simply disappeared as it was revealed to me that the relationship I had with God was really a one-way street, and that nothing ever actually seemed to be coming from the other side. My prayers were continually unanswered. The voice in my head and in my heart turned out to be my own, and it stayed there even as God drifted further and further from my life. What surprised me the most was that there was no “God-shaped hole” in me when He was gone, in fact there was no feeling of emptiness at all. So what had filled the huge space that was previously occupied by God? What I found had moved in, secretly, under cover of darkness, was not actually emptiness but a different kind of love. I found that I was increasingly full of love for people, for humans, and I started to see humans working in all the places that I had previously seen God. I noticed for the first time, with scales falling from my eyes, that God’s work turns out to be done almost exclusively by humans. I noticed that from the outside religion looks very much like a flavor of “stone soup” with a nod and a song towards God as people go about doing the real work. I started to recognize the power of the human community of the church, and to feel warmth come back into my feelings for the people I had left behind there, even as I knew I could never go back to believing the dogma.
Belief is a curious thing, because you really can’t choose it or fake it. If I decided that I wanted to be a Christian today, I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to, because I can’t choose to believe what I don’t believe. It seems to me that the Bible actually has this right, that it would have to be God who chooses the believers rather than the other way around. Because from where I now sit, on the outside looking in, the weight of the implausibility and flaws of the doctrines of Christianity is crushing; I could never carry it. None of this was clear to me when I was in the church, nor even as my faith was waning, but like the optical illusion with the young woman and the hag, now that I’ve seen Christianity from both sides, I can’t unsee it.
And then, there is so much that I have seen of the beauty of this world. My wonderful marriage has helped me to grow and see beyond myself. Fatherhood has been like bringing home a huge fountain of joy and installing it in our living room. Our home is full of joy, music, light, and love. Our hearts are full. The love I have for my son is boundless and truly unconditional. I can reflect on my experience with my young son and see that we aren’t born depraved and evil at our core. Of course we have our ups and downs, and parenting also turns out to be hard work, but it has opened my heart to a new type of love that I hadn’t known before. I suspect your experience as a parent and the love you share with your sons is very much the same. This firsthand experience of real, unconditional love as an earthly father has thrown the love of the heavenly father of the Bible into sharp contrast. I can see now that God’s love is completely conditional. When my son rebels against me as his human father I can simply forgive him, but God still demands payment in blood. I know that even if my son rejected me, insulted me, and no longer wanted me to be a part of his life, I would never send him to Hell for eternity. I love my son unconditionally and I want the best for him regardless of what he thinks about me.
I realized that the God of the Bible doesn’t live up to his own definition of love in the first chapter of Corinthians, not even close. The God of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, is a jealous and insecure God, a proud God who demands our eternal worship, an easily-angered God who keeps a record of our wrongs and will punish most people across all time for all of eternity. The God of the Old Testament is a wrathful God who kills people for unjust and silly reasons. I realized that a God who chooses to harden the hearts of some people so that they can’t see the truth or find salvation is not a God who loves all people. And ultimately, I realized that God must be held accountable for the whole system that he created knowing full well that it would doom most humans to eternal punishment. He created the world, the people, the rules, and the punishment for breaking them. When we seek salvation, it is not really salvation from ourselves but from the punishment He designed for people who break His rules that He made.
It is interesting to me that the first sin of mankind wasn’t something like murder, stealing, or adultery but actually questioning God and seeking knowledge. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the garden, God had an opportunity to demonstrate his perfect love by forgiving them, but instead he chose to curse not only them, but all of humanity for all time. He is a God whose wrath carries through generations. The tree in the garden was a test he created, with people he created, a garden he created, and even a deceitful snake he created and put in the garden to trick the people. Of course he knew the results of the test before it started. But even so, rather than forgive his naïve creation for acting exactly as he created them to act, he cursed all woman for all time with painful childbirth and to be ruled over by men (that second curse is worthy of a spit-take!). And he cursed men with hard work to provide food to eat. And he cursed everyone, even those of us living today, with death in this world by taking away access to the tree of life. Is that the most loving response he could have shown to the first rebellion of his brand-new creation?
In addition to love, I question the fundamental goodness of the God of the Bible. It seems to me that most Christians believe God is good by definition, and there isn’t anything God could do to dissuade them of this. Is there anything that God could do, even hypothetically, that would cause you to question His goodness? Consider for a moment how you might judge a human leader by their actions and the evil things that humans have done throughout history. Would a perfectly good and loving God do those sort of things? Unfortunately, God has either done or sanctioned virtually every evil thing I can think of and it’s all right there in the Bible. He condones and/or commits acts of slavery, rape, sex slavery, human sacrifice, killing for any number of crimes including victimless crimes, killing people for bad reasons, killing children, misogyny, lying and deceiving people, murdering (nearly) all of humanity both in the past and the future, cursing all of humanity in many ways through generations, and creating the whole system that ultimately sends most people across all time to eternal punishment in hell, which he also created. I should take this personally because, according to Hebrews 6:4–6, I am among the apostates specifically condemned by God to spend eternity in punishment despite having given Him my very best and sincere effort to believe.
You might be curious about the reason I am writing you about this now after so long. One main reason stems from how the question of my unbelief lurks in my otherwise healthy and loving relationship with my mother. My mom, as you know, is a wonderful person with a huge heart. She desperately wants to see me turn back to God and she prays and holds out faith that one day I will. For many years I worried that sharing my experience of leaving Christianity with her could do irreparable harm to our relationship, but eventually I knew that it was time for me to open up. It was important to me that she know that I hadn’t stepped out from my Christian belief in order to cling to sin or to believe in nothing at all. So this year, I decided that rather than brush off our scheduled annual conversion conversation, I would engage directly. While this has been a tough conversation for us, in the end I think that sharing my story and my secular worldview has actually strengthened our relationship. Still, it saddens me deeply that the only thing that stands between me and my mom is not anything I have done, but the Christian doctrine I know I will never be able to bring myself to believe again. While my mom and I are close, I am sad that she has to worry about me going to Hell. A dark storm cloud of my unresolved salvation will always be there at the edges of our relationship.
Another reason for sending this note now is because of the arc of my growth as a person. I think earlier versions of me had too much baggage, anger, and resentment from my Christian experience to effectively convey how much my life and worldview are healthier, richer, and more beautiful now after leaving the church. My growth as a human kicked into a new gear when I lost my faith. This is when I came to terms with the precariousness and immeasurable value of this life, the only life we really know we have. I learned compassion for others that is rooted in our shared human experience. How can I be angry at another person when I reflect on how they, like me, will one day die and lose everything and everyone they love? We are all in this together with a shared human condition. Our consciousness and lived experience as humans (and that of other conscious creatures) is the source of all of the meaning in life.
The fact that there is a character to our experience, that we can know both joy and sorrow, and that we can enterprise to make our lives better, for ourselves and for others, and for generations into the future, is incredibly meaningful. We have made real progress as a human race. Our lives today are healthier, longer, more enlightened, more cosmopolitan, and more progressive than they were at any time in the past. The world is certainly far better now than in the times when the Bible was written. Though it is easy to get caught up in the news cycle, if you take the long view, we are making real progress on every conceivable measure of human flourishing and well-being. And there is no sign of stopping the progress. Science continues to march on and over time we learn incrementally more about our circumstances in the natural world and our place in history. We continue to solve important engineering problems that can shape both our environment and our bodies to improve our well-being and erase human suffering. Today when you get sick, you call your doctor rather than a faith healer. Your congregation doesn’t pray for God to wipe COVID from the earth in the blink of an eye, but for a vaccine. I believe in the enlightenment values of Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. This worldview paints an optimistic picture of the future of humanity, a version of the future where we can continue to work together to solve problems and build a better world for future generations than we can even imagine today.
I think this is a more optimistic and purpose-driven view of this life, this world, and what we can expect from our human efforts here than I see reflected in the Bible. My worldview holds real hope for this world and real purpose to motivate our attempts to expand our knowledge and improve human well-being here and now. My worldview supports doing real good in the world for honest reasons. When I seek to make the world a better place with my good works, it is because I subscribe to a belief that the world can be made better in a lasting and meaningful way. In contrast to this perspective, the Bible says that things will get worse and worse until they are totally and fundamentally broken and the world is ultimately destroyed by God in the apocalypse to be replaced with a new world.
My worldview also doesn’t need to contend with the huge opportunity cost of funding a ministry to spread the good news instead of directly alleviating human suffering in this life. The question of eternal salvation raises the stakes such that when there are people at risk of dying from malaria, instead of sending mosquito nets, we might be tempted to instead send shoeboxes with trinkets and the gospel. I can only imagine how much better the world would be today if we could redirect all of the well-intentioned human efforts and massive financial resources that are funneled into church services and evangelism instead into actual work to alleviate hunger, disease, and other tangible and measurable causes of human suffering in this life.
My hope with this note is to share with you a more complete picture of where I, and probably other students like me, have landed after leaving the faith. I hope that perhaps you can see in this note that my enthusiastic search for the truth didn’t stop when I left the church, and that this search for truth has continued to propel me forward to where I am today. I hope you can see that my belief in moral truth and concern for human well-being has not waned but rather has strengthened and grounded itself in our shared human experience. I hope you can see that I care more than I ever did before about the important work of making this world and human lives better, both now and into the future. I hope that you can see that my life without God is rich with meaning, purpose, fulfilment, learning, and growth in all areas in life. Rather than falling away or hiding from the truth, I continue to both seek it and find it more fully as I continue to learn and grow. This fills me with appreciation, wonder, and love for other people, for our shared human experience, and for this world, in a way that was never fully available to me as a Christian. Each of us is an open system continually changing in relation to the world. None of us have yet become the people we mean to be. This is life’s great project. The person we were, and the fleeting person we are today, bear only a passing resemblance to the person we will become.
I send my love and regards for you, your family, the church, and your ministry. I wish you health, happiness, and fulfilment in this life. And in the next, should we be so lucky.
This is not a short note, but it still only scratches the surface my journey over the last 14 years. I am proud of my personal growth, and not least in the area of my attitudes about personal growth. Where I once thought I had a direct line to inerrant truth and sought to share it with others, today I am much more willing to admit what I don’t know, and I continually seek new knowledge and opportunities to disconfirm my beliefs. I seek to employ a growth mindset in all areas of my life. Below are a few resources that I have found valuable in my journey.
Born Again Again Podcast: If you are interested to hear another story that closely resembles mine and is presented with exceptional warmth and kindness, I highly recommend the “Born Again, Again” podcast. There is also a vibrant Facebook community by the same name that is full of people with similar experiences. If you do give the podcast a listen I recommend starting with the first two episodes to hear their story before diving into other topics. I see so much of my story reflected in Katie and Joe’s, from the centrality of my faith in my Christian life, to the erosion of my faith that I couldn’t stop despite my best efforts, and the feeling of increased richness, authenticity, and vibrancy that my life has now without Christianity. Here’s a link to their website: https://bornagainagain.co/
Moral Truth: I find that many Christians mistakenly claim a monopoly on moral truth and assume that nonbelievers are all moral relativists who, at bottom, can’t rationally believe in moral truth at all in absence of a divine authority. If you are interested to learn more about how moral truths can be discovered and defended in a secular context, I recommend this TED talk by Sam Harris that describes how Science and Reason can be employed to answer moral questions: https://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_answer_moral_questions
My Values: If you are curious to learn more about how this world can be made better, and about meaning in life from a secular perspective, I recommend the book “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker. This book outlines the enlightenment values of Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, with a particularly exhaustive (if at times exhausting) focus on progress. If you think the world is getting worse and worse and that we are doomed to continue to in this downward spiral until the world is destroyed, this book might help provide some counterpoints to the pessimism.
Theological Questions: If you are curious to learn more about the challenges I have with Christian doctrine, they are well reflected in this reddit post (not written by me). This includes a number of problematic Bible verses, and “questions from an athiest” that make a compelling case against the fundamental goodness of the Christian God and the Bible: https://www.reddit.com/r/TrueAtheism/comments/2v36v9/in_response_to_the_pastor_looking_for_honest/
About Death: One of my absolute favorite podcasts of all time is a conversation on Sam Harris’ podcast with Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the first Buddhist hospice in America. I read Sam’s intro to this podcast at my grandmother’s funeral. This message about how the awareness of death can improve our lives in each moment is moving, powerful, and meaningful as we seek to live full lives without regret. Here’s a link to the podcast episode: https://samharris.org/podcasts/the-lessons-of-death/
Evolution: The book “Why Evolution Is True” by Jerry A. Coyne presents the exhaustive evidence for evolution and explains the theory to correct common misconceptions about what it really says about the world. However, this is not a boring book that only tries to beat you over the head with facts, it is a compelling narrative laced with wonderment and awe at the richness and complexity of nature, and a respect for the continuing search for truth about our circumstances through science.
Suffering in the Bible: I was fascinated to take a tour of suffering in the Bible through the book “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer” by Bart D. Ehrman. First, I haven’t read many books about the Bible that are written from a secular perspective, so it was interesting to see the Bible through this lens in contrast to something like a sermon. It was also interesting to see the many different and conflicting explanations in the Bible for suffering, since (spoiler alert!) it turns out that the existence of suffering in this world alongside a God who is omnipotent, personal, and loving presents a real problem!