As I’ve written about before, I was raised in a Protestant household – first in a Methodist church but mostly in a non-denominational church. While the formality of the Methodist church left me dreading the religious routine, the casual attitude and modern music of the non-denominational church proved much more appealing. More importantly, my teens and twenties coincided with the peak of Christian rock.
The College Years
I didn’t go to college immediately after high school, but when I finally applied a few years later, it was with the intention of going to Denver Seminary. I believed fervently in the Christian religion and I thought I had a lot to offer as a future leader of the church. I also had an appetite for knowledge, which proved to be the undoing of my faith.
To enter seminary, I first had to earn my baccalaureate degree. I started with a major in philosophy and stacked up classes in anthropology, archeology, and history – disciplines I thought would be useful in my future religious career. While I was exposed to many secular viewpoints – particularly in the area of philosophy – I never felt any pressure as a Christian.
I understood many of the philosophical arguments against the existence of God, as well as those in favor of the existence of God, yet none of those changed my mind. I was very interested in anthropology and, given my upbringing, unusually receptive to the evidence of evolution. I never found the evolutionary theory to be contradictory with my religious faith (at least, not then).
The study of archeology and history were more useful in understanding how to filter information and distinguish good evidence from bad. In both, I found plenty of confirmation of the factual nature of the Jewish and Christian bible. And again, I never found that I had to compromise my religious faith to accept and learn the material.
My point in recounting all of this is to say that it wasn’t college that made me an atheist. Entering as a Christian, I recognized the secular (and liberal) biases in my courses and in the professors, but at no time did the course material make me doubt my faith. At no point was I talked out of my faith or converted to atheism.
What eventually led to my conversion was the continuing search for knowledge and answers about God and Christianity. During my college years, I continued to read about my religion in order to understand the true origins, particularly around the life of Jesus and the disciples. It was only as I tried harder to understand the origins of Christianity and the theological doctrine that I began to have my doubts.
From Christian to Atheist
Over time, four different factors led me to become an atheist (and change career paths): 1) Jesus himself never claims to be the literal son of God, 2) the theological explanation for Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is undermined by evolution, 3) the human mind “fills in the blanks” with supernatural explanations, and 4) there is no reason for me, in daily life, to have to consider supernatural explanations for the world we live in.
First-Hand Accounts Sure, the red letters in the New Testament put a lot of words in Jesus’s mouth, including his claim to be the Son of God, but I have my doubts about these second- and third-hand accounts. The best biblical scholarship admits that there are no first-hand accounts of the life of Jesus in the New Testament. At best, we have second-hand accounts written decades after His death. And several of those authors (I’m looking at you Paul and John) had their own agendas in writing what they did.
Original Sin The theological explanation for Jesus’s sacrifice relies upon a) the original sin of Adam and Eve, b) that sin residing in all of us as descendents of Adam, and c) the blood of Jesus cleansing that sin. The entire premise is the existence of Adam and Eve and their original sin, but evolution makes it clear that a literal Adam and Eve never existed. Instead, this is a standard origin story based on myth and has nothing to do with the actual origins of mankind. If Adam and Eve didn’t literally exist, then there was no need for Jesus to cleanse their original sin.
The Supernatural As we continue to study the human mind, it becomes clear that we have a tendency to fill in the blanks – to explain what we don’t understand – with supernatural explanations. This is an evolutionary trait that allowed the human animal to survive in a difficult world, but it also makes it easy for us to create and believe in religion when we don’t really need to.
The Natural One day, I woke up and realized that I don’t need to look for supernatural explanations in the world around me. Everything in Christianity, every theological explanation, every beautiful sunset, could be explained naturally. I covered several examples in my post Why I Don’t Believe, so suffice to say that once I realized that the supernatural was gone, I no longer saw the need for a religious theology that depended so much on belief in a supernatural god.
Most people who read this far will come away with the conclusion that college did in fact make me an atheist, but that’s the wrong message. While college provided the foundation, knowledge, and critical thinking skills that allowed me to evaluate my own beliefs, it wasn’t college that made me an atheist.
What made me an atheist was the desire for knowledge and wanting to understand my religion. As I gained that understanding – the theological roots, the men who were there at the beginning, and the nature of mankind itself – I decided my religion didn’t hold up well to scrutiny. College didn’t make me an atheist; learning more about religion and humanity made me an atheist.