If there are Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, there must be just as many ways for a devout person to leave their religion. Some relationships gradually erode over time until one person realizes there’s nothing left. Some have explosive fights and betrayals with a grand storming out.
For me, it was somewhere in between. I remember doubts going all the way back to childhood, when I realized the 6-day creation story didn’t account for dinosaurs. I wondered why God insisted on killing so many people in the Old Testament. I agonized about Hell, imagining all of my friends and teachers and neighbours who didn’t go to the right church suffering for eternity. I had a very vivid imagination. When Jabba the Hutt told his prisoners that they’d be digested in the Sarlaac for 1,000 years, I was terrified. That was far worse than just being killed! But then I remembered that Hell would be worse than that.
The big fights and betrayals though – that didn’t happen until later. Family tragedies, innocent people suffering – I won’t go into detail, except to say there was a child (not mine) and that child died. Everyone knows about grief. Everyone has a story of the first time they discovered that the world isn’t a safe place, that terrible things will happen no matter how good or how careful you are, and no matter who their protectors are.
When you expect an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being to have all the answers, your psyche takes a hit when you discover otherwise. And just like a person in a failed relationship who doesn’t want to admit it, I made excuses for my religion. Maybe God isn’t perfectly omnipotent. Maybe he wanted to prevent this from happening, but something worse would have happened if he did. Maybe this path really is the one with the greatest good. Maybe he isn’t perfectly omniscient. Maybe there are just too many people for him to handle every detail. Even though we’d all prayed so hard and had all the faith possible that the child would survive, he’d somehow looked away at the wrong moment.
Of the triad, the last thing I considered was “What if God isn’t omnibenevolent?” What would it look like to have a creator God who made everything, could see everything, could control everything, but wasn’t good? When tsunamis or hurricanes made the news, I imagined God as a kid with an ant-farm, pouring in water to watch them panic. I thought of gay people being told they were going to Hell for who they loved, and for everyone being told that they have to live by all these crazy strict rules about their own bodies and their own sexuality*. I considered what kind of God would give people the desire to have sex while forbidding them to do it. I wondered why Adam and Eve would be punished just for wanting to know. They didn’t eat from the Tree of Evil, after all. It was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
I came to believe God was cruel. But somehow, in all my questioning and pain, the one thing I wouldn’t do was admit, “Maybe God doesn’t exist.”
To be continued
* See Shame and Redemption for more of how my upbringing screwed up my sexuality.