For some people, losing belief in God is as easy as taking off a sweater that’s grown too tight. There’s a sense of relief and freedom. But when I became an atheist, that’s not how I felt at all. Losing God was like watching my best friend die.
When I was a kid, Jesus was my best friend. That sounds hokey – the kind of phrase someone might drop while giving you a sales pitch on being “born again” – but I mean it literally. I was a fat kid with a bowl cut who almost exclusively wore Hawaiian shirts and loved computer programing. That wasn’t exactly a recipe for popularity in the 1980s, so I spent a lot of time during recess hiding from bullies at the edge of the playground. There beneath the trees, I would pray to Jesus about feeling slow, fat and stupid. He always listened, and He never made fun of me.
I grew up into a pretty serious Southern Baptist. I became a deacon in my church when I was just 25. I married a cute Baptist girl, and we had cute Baptist daughters. And just like God said in the book of Genesis, it was good.
But I wasn’t just a Baptist, I was also a nerd. I taught myself how to program computers in second grade, and I know more about “Star Trek” characters than athletes. So when my dad – the worship leader at our church – called a family meeting to tell me and my sister that he was leaving my mom, I dove into the scriptures with the same intensity I gave matters of science. I read the Bible four times in one year, hoping that I’d find the answer to saving my parents’ marriage in some obscure corner of Leviticus. But instead of answers, I found more questions. Piece by piece, my faith fell apart until I didn’t believe in God anymore.
I’ve never felt grief like I felt when I realized I had lost my faith. And this grief was soon accompanied by fear. I was a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher. All of my friends were Christians. Coming clean about my newfound atheism could cost me everything I cared about. So I pretended to be a Christian. I continued teaching Sunday school, kept serving the sacraments in our worship services, even led my older daughter to Christ – all while believing none of it and congregating online with atheists and skeptics to talk about what I really believed. It was exhausting.
But then, two years later, a miracle happened. I was in California for a conference, and God appeared to me one night while I was standing on the beach. I saw a bright light and felt God’s love emanating through the very fabric of reality. This was a bewildering moment for me, because I didn’t believe in God at all. I was so thrown off by the experience that I requested a CAT scan when I got home, thinking that maybe a brain tumor was behind my miraculous vision. My neurologist didn’t find an explanation, so I had to look elsewhere for answers.
I spent the next few years furiously studying cosmology and neuroscience to learn about what created us and why it is that humans experience what we call “God” in such powerful ways. I learned there’s a name for the kind of moment I had: a mystical experience. I also discovered that belief in God affects the human brain in profound ways. Believing in God can lower your stress levels, boost empathy and compassion, and even improve concentration, as neuroscientist Andrew Newberg (in “How God Changes Your Brain”) has noted. Along the way, I found the most amazing insight of all: I am not alone.
Millions of Americans have discovered that the ideas about God they grew up with were too rigid to stay with them as they got older. Forty-four percent of us will undergo a faith transition in our lives. But the exodus out of faith in this country leads to more people saying they are “spiritual, not religious” than saying they are atheist.
I think one reason is that a lot of people have had their own moment on the beach, an experience so powerful that skeptical language can’t describe it. Our brains seem to be wired to appreciate the numinous. But, while skepticism has offered an essential critique of religion at its worst, it doesn’t answer the human need for purpose and connection the way faith does. I see this unmet desire each week, when I host two podcasts for thousands of listeners who straddle the spiritual and skeptical realms.
It’s a strange coalition of atheists who still pray, Christians who don’t attend church and people who can’t find any religious label that fits. But what they all share is a conviction that even though none of us have all the answers to life’s biggest questions – neither theologians nor scientists – this predicament can lead us not to nihilism but to a renewed commitment to address the suffering we all experience in our own way. A faith informed by science and skepticism is a tool for personal transformation and service, not a sign that religion’s days are numbered. There’s something beautiful about a community gathered in mutual respect and humility around this idea.
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McHargue is the host and co-host of the podcasts “Ask Science Mike” and “The Liturgists Podcast,” and the author of “Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science.”