If I had to pinpoint the driving force behind becoming an atheist, I would have to credit the dinosaurs and cavemen.
Like many kids, I was fascinated by dinosaurs. I was also brought up in a household that celebrated Christian traditions. I knew about Jesus' birth, his crucifixion and resurrection, Noah and the ark and Adam and Eve, keeping these stories separate from our world's early history. As I grew older, I started to put these things together, learning about biology and evolution and how these things don't line up what the Bible told me.
How could Adam and Eve be the very first humans on Earth when we had scientific proof of varying levels of evolved humans before them? The more I learned about evolution in school, the more it made sense to me. What no longer continued to make sense was a man and woman just appearing because a deity wanted them to.
But I pushed those thoughts aside for six years because I wanted people to like me.
I got involved in youth group in high school. My mom encouraged my brother and I to try out the local church around the time I was 15. Previously, we were the Easter/Christmas churchgoers, with religion being something we knew about, but didn't heavily practice.
For me, this was perfect timing to get reeled into Christianity. I was a shy kid who wanted to be included and liked, and youth group gave me a strong circle of friends who constantly told me how funny I was. They enjoyed being around me and gave me confidence to shed my shyness.
I did, of course, experience that "God high" new Christians get. I was going on mission trips, I was making friends and I couldn't get enough of church, youth group, serving others and all the social perks that come with it.
As time went on, I started to see the fallacies in religion. My thoughts about dinosaurs and evolution still popped up, but I started to question outside those original issues during a senior-year mission trip to the Dominican Republic. I was excited to visit a new country, and while I loved the culture and picking up Spanish words along the way, I really started to question things, especially what religion's true motives were.
For this particular trip, the goal wasn't to help people, it was to try to convert as many people as possible to Christianity. I felt uneasy about it because in my opinion, faith, spirituality and religion are personal choices one should make on their own. I became even more uncomfortable when our youth leaders burst through the doors exclaiming, "We got one!" when they came back from preaching God's word throughout the neighborhood.
The friends I had on the trip who were equally uneasy saw the fault in this and we started calling the act "going fishing" with complete disgust. We started to look at our once-respected youth leaders in a different light. We felt like frauds as we invaded a community, gained people's trust, tried to convert them to Christianity and then abandoned them with no intention of coming back.
I had started to see the ugly side of religion, but I didn't want to give up my friends and sense of belonging. That stayed with me when I went off to college and was introduced to a college youth group. Again, finding myself in unfamiliar surroundings with new social circles to appease, I was nervous, intimidated and so desperate to be accepted. I was given the chance to play bass guitar in the group's worship band, so I took it as a great opportunity to be involved, make friends and have a spotlight shine on me.
The first couple of years weren't too bad. I had great friends who I would spend hours with at Steak and Shake, think of exciting adventures to go on and just laugh together. They were -- and still are -- good people. They were what kept me there, in spite of my doubts about my faith itself.
But since these friends were also a couple years older than me, the inevitable happened. They graduated and left college while I still had to finish my degree. I had other friends to fall back on, but with my reason to attend youth group gone, I had to ask myself why I was really going.
I came to the realization that I was only going for social reasons, which led to an internal struggle of what I really believed in. Then more started flooding in. One especially painful realization was that for so long, I used God to get what I wanted. And it wasn't just me -- I saw so many of my peers doing the same thing. When we didn't want to own up to something, we'd throw out the "God is telling me..." line. God is such an easy scapegoat. He takes the blame while you can avoid responsibility.
I also took umbrage with all the rules and restrictions that were put on me as I was nearing the end of college. At 21, I was chastised for swearing, I was asked why I occasionally skipped church or youth group and put on the spot about why I wasn't signed up for the annual mission trip. At one point, a "friend" called the cops on me because I had alcohol in student housing. Religion was starting to look like something I didn't want to be part of anymore.
Becoming an atheist wasn't something that happened immediately. I was in denial about it for a long time. I didn't want the thing that consumed my life for six years to be for nothing. I knew I'd lose these friendships I'd spent years building. I wasn't ready for that, so I held out for as long as I could. It was a slow transition. I stopped going to youth group and church, but still considered myself a Christian. I then started to question why the church had so many rules. Why can't I swear? Why is sex before marriage such a horrible thing? Why does a woman have to be subservient to a man? Why is homosexuality a sin? I thought all of these were petty. I questioned why Christians were so concerned with what other people were doing, even though it didn't involve or hurt them. The more I questioned, the clearer I saw that this was the end.
Transitioning from a Christian to an atheist was one of the hardest things I have ever gone through, made more difficult by the fact that I was completely isolated. When I experienced death in my life, I had friends there for support. When my parents were going through a divorce, I had friends who were always there for me. When I became an atheist, I had friends talking behind my back, shunning me at times. There was nobody I felt safe talking to without fear of getting a lecture, being told I was wrong or acting negative toward my confession.
Hell, even when I was a Christian, I was so often lectured about my liberal choices. I was scolded when I stripped to my bra and shorts and went swimming during a nighttime group trip to the beach. I got in trouble during a mission trip for lifting up my shirt to sun my stomach during a lunch break. I got snide remarks for drinking alcohol after I turned 21. Basically, I was getting in trouble for things a.) my parents knew about, and b.) they were perfectly OK with. And I was getting sick of it.
The incident that really put things in motion was when I moved in with my then-fiance. We were getting married in less than a year and it didn't make sense to sign a year lease separately if we were just going to be living together soon anyway. There was this part of me, however, that was ashamed, even though I knew I wasn't doing anything wrong. I didn't want my friends to find out. Inevitably, they did. That's around the time the friendships started to dissolve. I no longer got invited to group events, I didn't get a call when people came into town, I didn't get invited to weddings.
Now, I have to take responsibility for this as well. There was a part of me that did the isolating, too. The truth is, I was ashamed of myself during the beginning of my transition. I felt so much guilt that I kept away, living the life that I knew many of my former crusaders would not accept. Some friendships quietly vanished, while others left emotional scars from the resentment that came from my choice. Every friendship ended differently.
I knew I would lose most of my friends when I became an atheist, and it took me about three years to be able to publicly admit my new belief. I'm still nervous. I'm afraid people from my past are going to read this and have more negative things to say about me and my choice. But I know I can't live like that. Just like I knew I couldn't pretend to be a Christian anymore -- I have to be true to myself, even if it involves losing the people I spent most of my college years with.