Editor's note: Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of “Faith and Other Flat Tires.”
By Andrea Palpant Dilley, Special to CNN
During my junior year in college, I took a butter knife from my mother’s kitchen and scraped the Christian fish decal off the back bumper of the Plymouth hatchback I’d inherited from my older brother. Stripping off that sticker foreshadowed the day, a few years later, that I would walk out of church.
The reasons for my discontent were complicated. By most standards, I had a healthy childhood. I grew up the daughter of Quaker missionaries in a rural Kenyan community that laid the foundation for my faith. I spent the rest of my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, raised in a stable Presbyterian church that gave me hymns and mission trips and potluck dinners.
I was surrounded by smart, conscientious Christians, the kind of people who read 19th century Russian novels and took meatloaf to firefighters when much of eastern Washington state went up in flames in the fall of 1991.
When I started into my skeptic phase, my Christian community gave me space to struggle. They listened to my doubts about faith. They took my questions seriously.
And yet when I turned 23 I left the church.
Listening to a sermon at my older brother’s church one Sunday, I stood up, leaned over to my father and said, “This is bulls**t.” I made my way to the end of the pew and marched out of the sanctuary. The sermon didn’t sit right with me. The pastor was preaching about Psalm 91, saying in so many words that a person just needed to pray and have faith in order to be protected from suffering.
More than just that sermon, I was sick of church. I was sick, too, of all the spiritual questions plaguing me: Why does the church seem so culturally insulated and dysfunctional? Why does God seem distant and uninvolved? And most of all, why does God allow suffering?
These questions didn’t come out of nowhere. I’d spent time in high school volunteering in refugee camps in Kenya and in college working with families on welfare in central Washington. I saw hungry babies. I walked into homes that were piled with garbage and dirty laundry.
In an orphanage in the slums of Nairobi, I held AIDS babies and worked with disabled kids who’d been left at the front gates of the orphanage by parents who couldn’t afford to feed them. I saw things that I couldn’t make sense of as a Christian.
Walking out of church was a way of saying “To hell with it; I’m done.”
For two years, I skipped church. My Bible gathered dust on the shelf. The local bars became my temples. I indulged in the cliché rebellions of a Christian girl, smoking cigarettes and drinking hard alcohol. I got involved with men twice my age without thinking twice about it. I wanted a break from being “good.”
And then, strangely, I woke up one morning at age 25, climbed into my car, and drove downtown to attend a 10 a.m. church service. I won’t relate here the whole story of how I came back to the church. But if I had to follow the standard testimonial narrative for Christians, the script for my life story would go something like this:
Step 1: Grow up in a Christian church.
Step 2: Go off to college away from said church.
Step 3: Be exposed to the enticements of secular life.
Step 4: Try drugs and cigarettes and Pearl Jam.
Step 5: Leave the church because of aforementioned enticements.
Step 6: Experience epiphany; realize vapidness of secular enticements.
Step 7: Return to church with penitent heart.
Step 8: Reestablish faith, discover good living.
In reality, I left the church more because of my own internal discontent than the lure of so-called secular life. When I came back, I still carried that same discontent. I was confused, and still bothered by questions and doubts. I stayed in the back row and didn’t sing or pray. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be there.
And yet I sat there, Sunday after Sunday, listening to the pastor and the organ pipes and trying to figure out what was going on in my dark, conflicted heart.
Although I never experienced that dramatic reconversion moment, I did come to peace with two slow-growing realizations.
First: My doubt belonged in church.
People who know my story ask what I would have changed about my spiritual journey. Nothing. I had to leave the church to find the church. And when I came back, the return wasn’t clean or conclusive. Since then, I’ve come to believe that my doubts belong inside the space of the sanctuary. My questions belong on the altar as my only offering to God.
With all its faults, I still associate the church with the pursuit of truth and justice, with community and shared humanity. It’s a place to ask the unanswerable questions and a place to be on sojourn. No other institution has given me what the church has: a space to search for God.
Second: My doubt is actually part of my faith.
In Mark 9:24, a man says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called this the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often and believe that God honors my honesty.
I also believe God honors my longing. The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said “Faith is homesickness.” C.S. Lewis called it “Sehnsucht,” a longing for a far-off country. I feel that sense of unshakable yearning. It comes from the deepest part of my heart, a spiritual desire that’s strangely, mysteriously connected to my doubt.
Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrea Palpant Dilley.
The real definition of an atheist is not "one who believes there is no God" But one who denies the existence of God.
Look up at the moonlit starry night, or the setting sun across a lake or into the eyes of a mother holding her new born baby
and ask yourself "all this and no God?"
I'd argue that people can't even agree on the definition of Atheist, much less that of Christian.
"Look up at the moonlit starry night, or the setting sun across a lake or into the eyes of a mother holding her new born baby
and ask yourself "all this and no God?""
I've seen many moonlit starry nights, and oceanic sunsets. No divine explanation needed for those. As for the mother holding her newborn, it's called a maternal instinct. Again, no divinity required.
As a scientifically minded artist, I can marvel at the sunset just as much as you can, but I don't need God to explain how the Sun is held together by gravity, nor how it fuses hydrogen into helium, belching out radiation that takes minutes to reach us. I understand how the oblique angle the sunlight takes through the evening sky causes more shortwave radiation to be filtered out by the longer trip through the atmosphere, leaving us with that gorgeous red-orange glow. Even knowing the cold hard facts, a sunset is still beautiful and sublime to me. I don't need theology to appreciate the triumphs of nature.
Great response, Surfeit. And let us also not forget those aspects of nature that aren't all warm and fuzzy. A cheetah suffocating a gazelle, Ants eating a writhing worm alive. The stench of death. The sight of emaciated animals dying slowly in a prolonged drought. To cherry pick nature's most glorious Kodak moments and say that they prove the existence of god is not just cheesy and silly, but also hugely dishonest.
The real definition of an atheist is someone who refuses to believe in things for which there is no evidence.
Wow I read the other day that 70% of Atheists (who were Ex. Christians) returned back to their faith after watching Passion of the Christ.
Wow, I read the other day that 99% of people who quote percents are making them up 99% of the time.
I would be naive to believe that but the movie was powerful and moving, so I can't really say.
Wow...why do you think so many atheists and agnostics go to read an article in Belief blog, then become upset and post why they think the believers are wrong? You would think they would ignore us since they consider us to be so ignorant, right? Their hearts must be telling them something that their brains cannot comprehend, so they are looking for answers from us!
Your heart pumps blood, it doesn't think.
In the case of this article, the atheists have shown up to represent themselves instead of letting this writer get away with the strawman argument she's set up against them.
We would love to ignore you, but when even such smugly self-impressed "liberal" theologians like Stephen Prothero use this forum to bang the drums in support of such travesties as National Prayer Day and a religion infested public life, we can't afford to.
You idiots argue among yourselves. I"ll close the door on my way out.
Have the atheists chosen "no god" as their spokesman on this board? Please let him know, it's lights out on Death Row in a half hour and it would make him happy that you believe in him.
Fascinating....."Believers" run the ranks of some of the most eminent scientists and thinkers in history. Crazy folk too, I guess. I observed a tiny insect on my finger today. It was perfect in every way. The eternal question. It just "fell" into existence? How can one even consider such a question when even the most simple man-made object didn't do the same? It had a designer – with a mind and a purpose. So did creation. Religion and ALL intellectual pursuits – history, philosophy – even science – have what's written by other persons – all with internal bias. Why cherry-pick religion and say that it alone is guilty of that same bias? Let's just throw it all out and wander around like zombies with no moral base and only relativistic views of How Life Should Be. Wait...we have since the 60s. How's that working out for you?
NOBODY, least of all geneticists and evolutionary biologists, think that any organisms just "fell" into existence. If you are going to object to a point of view, put at least an ounce of effort into understanding it.
"I observed a tiny insect on my finger today. It was perfect in every way"
So, you know what perfect is?
"Moral base"? Forcing adolescent girls into marriage because your tin god says you should? Molesting little boys and babies because of a "vision" some washed-up hardware salesman....oops! the prophet that founded whatever "religious" sect you blindly follow? Treating women as slaves and chattel. Your "perfect insect" is a product of evolution. Sadly, you are not.
"I observed a tiny insect on my finger today. It was perfect in every way."
I don't know about perfect, but I'm pretty sure it processed the information available to it to arrive at more sensible conclusions than you do.
I thought you were leaving? Hard to get away from these nut cases isn't it?
Hey buff, Thought you left. Its pretty tough breaking away from this.
Atheists: Would you rather live next to a church, a synagogue, or a mosque?
Synagogue. If I have to live close to the congregating point of a bunch of religgies. let them be of a non-proselytizing faith.
It would not make one iota of a difference to me.
This board is the Sunday meeting place for atheists to pronounce their belief in non-belief, if you can believe that.
None of the above. I might end up as collateral damage when they expressed their "faith."
Beautiful post! Thank you!
I LOVE JESUS CHRIST!
Can you say that a little louder please?
Andrea, why did your Quaker parents have you in a Presbyterian church?
Are you asking about "life begins at conception" situation???
Yes, it does seem like a major plot twist in this person's churchly childhood was oddly skimmed over.
Wow, this Psychiatric study found that atheists are more likely to remain unmarried, not have children and have a significantly higher suicide rate than people who have religious affiliation!
Ouch.. At least they're smarter. Right?..
Good morning! You found out that now?!
Countries with high suicide and depressing rate = high atheism. Look at Scandinavian countries as an example!
That doesn't explain why they are such a growing segment of the population then.
Yes shadowcandy, typically they have above-average IQs, but also typically score quite high on the Asperger test (Asperger being a type of autism).
It should be WOW! not Wow, right?
Goog question tony. Since the atheists typically have a hard time finding (and keeping?) mates (most atheists are male), I therefore suspect that the growth of atheism in the developed world is probably due to atheist internet presentations (a type of evangelism) with a heavy atheism-adoption rate on college campuses.
This could be a current fashion with young white college students similar to the 'urban hipster' style.
Growth may level off or even decline in future with a changing of what the 'in thing' is with the white youth.
The fear of Hell's a mighty powerful behavioral inhibitor. I'll give religion that. It could also be said that religion as a social construct does create an emotional support system for those who adhere to the central dogma, so the feelings of inclusion are higher in religious adherents. Contrast that to an atheist who goes public in the southeastern United States; the tide of condemnation and social isolation can be so overwhelming that it sweeps a person's self-esteem right over the edge. People who quit religion have to carry a big cross, which is why it's so hard to leave the church.
It has been reported that many atheists run in ever decreasing concentric circles until they run up their own backsides, making it difficult to marry, have children, and due to the lack of oxygen, are said to have killed themselves.
Tony et al, committed, radical, philosophically driven atheists are growing, but not by leaps and bounds. The demographic that is growing rapidly are the casually irreligious. That's true here and abroad.
The Scandinavian countries are not extremely high in suicide rates. They are somewhat towards the top, but there are a lot of countries ahead of them. Google it.
Committed atheists tend to focus not so much on what members of this or that demographic do to themselves, but what they do to others. I agree with the religious that radical atheists tend to underappreciate how much horror has been visited upon the world by people not especially inclined towards any supernatural beliefs or even openly hostile to them. Stalin may not have slaughtered in the name of atheism, but atheism didn't cure communism of its megalomaniacal, murderous tendencies, either. But religious people who go all soft and gooey over the "hope" that religion gives them (and which may indeed ameliorate any suicidal tendencies they may have) are just as bad in glossing over how much hopelessness and horror sectarian zealots have visited upon others, including each other.
Here's a world map color coded by suicide rate. Within Scandinavia. only Finland is even moderately high. I note that Outer Mongolia is remarkably low. Surely Outer Mongolia is no bastion of evangelical fervor!
Whops! Forgot the link: http://chartsbin.com/view/prm
Every suicide is one too many, unless Atheist are correct, which means we should all just commit suicide! Just kidding!
It is a shame when anyone reaches the conclusion that existence is not worth participating in.
Peace and love to all on Earth.
@PerceivedReality It's a shame that depression, uncontrollable anxiety and unbearable shame (except when deserved) exist. Suicide is a side effect of these things, which have a mixture of medical, psychological and social causes.
@ johnfrichardson said
Watch it, wise ass.
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son: Last one – the western culture in which I assume you live would not exist except for Christianity. Hospitals, public education, established social systems, equal rights for all, etc., did not happen in a vacuum. Sure there are still faults -many of them – but the best part of the "life" of the Western world with all of it's freedoms, rights and opportunities – that did exist here first exists precisely because of deeply seated religious belief – not non-belief in God (to cop a double negative). You just have to deal with history . . . when considering the impact of thought upon the world.
A group of Greek came up with democracy. That couldn't possibly have come from a top-down Church hierarchy.
DId I ever say otherwise? Do point out the post in which I did, nitwit. Meanwhile, maybe you can figure out how apostrophes work, oh brilliant scholar.
Hey, why don't you prove that none of the benefits you mention would have occurred in the absence of Christianity. Go ahead.
It is true your word is. To be enlightened with such Truth regarding one's country-roots is fast becoming ladled with many falsehoods in our schooling systems for the "publically orientated" bastions in bewildering and mind-altering s-e-x-u-a-l educations becoming the prima fascia of and for the upcoming lay-people to deal with for their parent's omissions sakes!
Widgmartin, The west was neither particularly well off materially nor very free during Christianity's long reign from late Roman times until the dawn of the enlightenment and the rise of secular humanism. Much of our material well being is due to the technological achievements that couldn't have happened if science hadn't broken free of the religious yoke the churches tried to place upon it.
Tony, some Christians see intelligent design in nature everywhere. We also marvel at how a universe tuned perfectly to allow our lifeform to exist, when many of the constants if changed only slightly, would not allow for life. We add on top of that already marvlous wonder, the wonder of the genesis and complexity of life. You say all that just happened for no particular reason. We Christians believe otherwise. Maybe if you looked past your nose and recognised the micro-macro house of mirrors as perhaps a rouse set up by God, you could too. We are here to choose self or God. Choose wisely.
"Tony, some Christians see intelligent design in nature everywhere. We also marvel at how a universe tuned perfectly to allow our lifeform to exist, when many of the constants if changed only slightly, would not allow for life."
Our life for exists because of natural selection, it wasn't designed, we are a product of a necessity to survive, to evolve, to continue living, period.
for = form
In the debate so far:-
collection plates for atheists: 0
collection plates for theists- millions (Per week)
In choosing a new career would you rather be (a) an atheist community spokes person, or (b) a Pastor.
I'm seriously thinking about (b) since I don't believe in a god there's nothing I can do wrong.
I would recommend looking at the book "what does the bible really teach" at http://www.jw.org
Tell us, what does the bible really teach?
You can't argue with dead person.
sheep need herding. unlike you, I am no sheep.
I'm a nonbeliever from Europe and I get surprised that American Atheists only target/attack Christians when there are millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc. that lives in USA too. There are far worse religion than Christianity. Just come here to western Europe and see how Muslims destroyed our nations, trying to force us with sharia laws, etc. :/
Be happy Christians are in general tolerant.
Welcome Non-Believer from Europe!
Thank you for a little perspective.
Prayer changes things .
lol athiesm is not healthy for 'other living things" nice one.
pray to papa smurf. same success rate.
Yep! My health insurance provider dropped my premiums by 90% because my congregation is praying for me, and that cures most of my ills before they even happen.
Poor guy, you just need a bigger prayer circle!
I agree with this one actually. A study (funded by theists, mind you) showed that when an ICU patient knew they were being prayed for, they were far more likely to suffer negative complications in their treatment.
Prayer changes things
What does a tele-evangelist see when looking at a nice new car? – – – – 4 wasted potential extra collection plates.
What is there to doubt about? You are alive, you exist. You were placed into this creation, in this body, in this moment to live this life. God will always be truth and infinite love. No matter what the lost and spiritually confused people on this planet say. Everything did not come from nothing.
No one ever said it did, dearie.
"Placed" implies that god planned for you to exist. Which means that anyone who may have murdered one or more of your possible alternative ancestors, in your lineage, did not have free will.
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son: Clarification – "damned" in a figurative sense.
The point I'm making is that many atheists/agnostics speak as if they have the truth and are completely intolerant – no different than the people they love to berate and accuse of stupidity. Pot calling the kettle black.
That's atheist. All the agnostics I know are all humble in their beliefs. But that's just my reality..
Read the posts of most of the crazy believers here. Tell me they were posted by intelligent beings.
Don't listen to Shadowcandy, it doesn't know what atheism and agnosticism is.
Gnosis deals with knowledge of the spiritual; put an a in front and it becomes a claim that spiritual knowledge is not available..
Theism deals with belief in god(s); put an a in front of it and it becomes simple nonbelief of the god claim (Atheism means NOT belief in god–it does not mean "I claim god does not exist." )
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son: Have known plenty of brilliant believers (and many of those very well educated). I would not consider posting on CNN as evidence of the intelligence, or lack thereof, for any "group" since the postings are by individuals.
Do point out my assertion that all believers are crazy.
Atheists have the massive visible universe wide evidence of no apparent godly intervention for the past 13 Billion years or so. And religion has what . . that is not written by other religious persons. . . . . ??? That's statistically a reason for a certain amount of confidence. And a reasonable expectation that believers should at least present something to defend their few thousand years of arrogant publicity.
Honestly I hate to reinforce the behavior of athiests but you generally act like an azz when you have science with actual facts and evidence supporting your claim and your opponants story sounds fishy at best, with no evidence at all. basically athiests see it as "no contest' when debating. Its simple fary tails vs the greatest scientific minds humanity has produced. So i can see why many athiests show now respect, kinda like they are talking to a stupid child or something.
@Momoya.. lol. It? Nice try at trying to dehumanize me but it only reinforces my belief on arrogant Atheist like you. Congratulations!
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