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.
My prayer goes to our beloved brothers and sister nonbelievers that one day they will seek God and convert.
I think it worked. Praise Allah!!
Allah means God in Arabic.
Christian Arabic speakers says Allah too
If you seeked God you would realize he's not there.
Cognitive dissonance at its best (worst?)
You left the church because of legitimate doubts and reasons for skepticism, as well as because of an infeasible assertion on the part of the pastor – that faith ameliorates all suffering, as if automatically.
You subsequently convinced yourself that you left the church due to being enticed by secular living.
This contradiction is even apparent in your op-ed, which demonstrates clearly your deep ambivalence and conflict.
It is not my intend to disabuse you of your faith. If you derive fulfillment and meaning from your faith, I encourage you to continue doing so. It is your life, and as the alternative to faith (even rudimentary faith merely that there is "something" beyond all of this) is nothingness after death, there's no compelling reason for you NOT to adhere to a religious faith.
I'm just saying, with all respect and no hostility intended: please consider at least not falling into the tired (to borrow your word, vapid) cliche of, "The material world's evils seduced me, but I'm better now." You already acknowledged what the real reasons for your doubts were, they were valid, and you're clearly more intelligent and empathetic than to fall into this sort of false dichotomy.
Most importantly, you obviously don't require religion to be a compassionate, conscious human being according to what you wrote here. Food for thought?
I think you may have misread part of this essay. It seems worth addressing, since on the basis of your inaccurate understanding of this one section, you mischaracterize the author's writing and thinking processes and dismiss as "cognitive dissonance" an otherwise thoughtful post (However, since you say you write with "all respect and no hostility intended", I'm assuming this is an understandable error and not an intentional misrepresentation of what the author wrote.)
You accurately summarize the author's reasons for leaving the church: "because of legitimate doubts and reasons for skepticism, as well as because of an infeasible assertion on the part of the pastor – that faith ameliorates all suffering, as if automatically."
Here's where your misreading comes in (I think). You write to the author: "You subsequently convinced yourself that you left the church due to being enticed by secular living. What?"
Please look again at the essay. That's the exact *opposite* of what she said.
[The author sets up what elements one would likely EXPECT from a "standard Christian testimonial narrative" (she lists this out as a multi-step priocess, which includes leaving the church/faith due to "being enticed by secular living").
But then she explains how her story *differs* from that "typical" narrative (especially the "leaving due to enticements of secular life"). She writes: "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."]
That last sentence from the quote also hits on the *main themes* that she discusses for the rest of the blog post:
1. She feels like church is THE space where she needs to bring and wrestle with her doubts and questions. (This is very different from: "I'm chucking all of my rational inquiry and critical thought out of the window in order to return to the church.")
2. Her doubts and questions are somehow deeply connected to both her faith/longing for God.
You may perceive ambivalence in her personal narrative, as do I. To her credit, the author acknowledges that many questions are unresolved for her, even now.
However, in this essay the author did NOT interpret her personal story of leaving and returning to the church by using the rigid narrative terms which you mistakenly ascribed to her ("The material world's evils seduced me, but I'm better now.") So happily, your advice that the author "please consider at least not falling into tired cliches" is unecessary in this case. Also not required: your friendly admonishment that she is "clearly more intelligent and empathetic than to fall into this sort of false dichotomy". Thankfully, the author's essay itself–correctly understood–demonstrates this.
Also, you may be skeptical about anyone's ability to sit with doubts and questions in a church/religious setting, but you sound respectful enough to let the tension of her personal story stand as it is.
P.S. You raise an excellent question regarding whether or not religion is required to be a compassionate, conscious human being: I believe one of the truest tests of character (regardless of creed) is one's ability to admit wrrongs against another and commit to doing right in the future. Food for thought?
This article assumes that the "secular life" is "vapid" because of the indulgences the author partook in – drinking, smoking, and getting involved with an older man. It doesn't address the other possible elements of a non-religious lifestyle, such as the pursuit of logic, lively discussion, a possibly enhanced appreciation for human relationships, and other factors. These are, of course, generalized and non-specific, but you get the idea.
Many people with religious orientation (not just Christians) make fun of agnostics for failing to adhere to any current faith-based belief system. However, the pursuit of logic and meaning can be a wonderful, exciting journey filled with discovery.
Just my two cents. :)
This is a testament to the power of brainwashing children at an early age. Despite her doubts, and KNOWING that religion is "bull****", she still returns to the church. She knows no other way to live, its that simple. Her parents should be proud that they so deeply indoctrinated her that she will never escape.
I wonder is Atheists are correct that after this life there is nothing, you just seize to exist. I don't know what it feels like to not exist for ever and ever, it must be hell.
Do you remember what it was like to not have existed the 14 billion years before you were born? Was it hell?
Do you remember before you were born? No?
You should "seize" to ever comment again.
*cease to exist, I think you mean.
Well obviously it's FEELS like nothing. Hardly worth fretting over..
Just think how long your last Church visit felt like. That one hour or two that felt like days. Now imagine that for year after year after year for all and all of eternity, God and Jesus are looking over your shoulder for everything you do in Heaven and if you do anything at all they don't like, good luck in the pit of flames.
So because you are afraid you decide to believe in a fantasy with a happy ending? Is that how you deal with everything else in your life?
Why in the world would you a.ssume that?!?! Not existing probably feels pretty much the same whether it's after death or before birth.. Did you have a horrible time for the billions of years before you were born?
Read the Bible, it will answer all your questions and explain everything that's going on in the world today, God is real, Satan is real but his days are numbered. Satan's plan is to confuse as many souls as he can and create this false perception of Christianity so naturally it would turn many people away from believing in God. This is simple stuff, just because someone claims to be a Christian does not mean they really are, If we ask God to reveal himself to us he will, j
ust be ready for it :) And until we fully submit ourselves to God we will always be controled by doubt, fear and confusion which comes from Satan but by reading the word and leaning not on our own understanding but on Jesus teachings we will live a much better life
The Bible is utterly unreliable as a source of information or guidance. Unless of course you've already drank deeply of the poison kool-aid.
In that case it makes perfect sense.
@toma3435, right on!
My atheist husband (Thank God I left him & he's in jail) constantly threathened me if I told him I believe in God.
He used to punish me severe and was scared to call the police until my neighbor heard us and arrested him.
How sad. But in fact his atheism had nothing to do with his anger issues. Believers beat their wives too.
No but he was an militant atheist and destroyed all pictures of the holy family, my bibles, etc. :(
And? If your faith depends on ownership of pictures and books, it's a pretty weak faith.
AtheistSteve: Of course she is going to blame his lack of belief for his anger. She is neglecting to comprehend the fact that no matter what you believe or don't believe, there is a common ground amongst all...we're all human and this type of abuse happens regardless.
I feel for her, no-one deserves that treatment but as you well know I left an abusive man who was a theist and who believed in the biblical crap of women being less equal then men.
Young Mom: Seriously the man you unfortunately had to tolerate has mental health issues. What he did was wrong and his destroying things that meant something to you was not due to his lack of belief but due to the fact that he was bullying you. He would have acted the same way if he was a believer because he was out to hurt you and he knew that by destroying that stuff, it would. He deserves his prison sentence and you should be proud of yourself for getting out while you had the chance. Not all men or women who are Atheists behave so poorly. AtheistSteve is my husband and he would never lay a hand on me in anger or do anything to offend me.
Your story sounds very familiar to mine. While I enjoyed (and still enjoy) what you describe as the 'vapidness of secular life', that is not a replacement for the peace of religion. I filled that human need for fulfillment and purpose with reading, learning, and a deep appreciation for the beauty, awe, and wonder of the world around me. I honestly doubt you really believe in God, but you needed something with substance and depth, not smoking and drinking.
– There are 2.2 billion Christians worldwide and hundreds of thousands of priests. Just because few sick priest molested young boys does NOT mean all hundreds of thousands of priests worldwide are the same. BTW there are Rabbi's that have done the same molesting young Jewish boys. This happens in every faith and nonreligion!
You do realize a "Few" is over dozens and dozens that are discovered every year. Not to mention the thousands that get away with it. I'm just saying, if you are going to waste your life in the Church on the premise you are going to go to Heaven... You would think raping little boys wouldn't sit well with the big guy.
Does every religious and secular insti tution ignore it, pretend it doesn't happen, sweep it under the rug, trivialize it by saying it only happens rarely, transfer the abusers to OTHER CHURCHES where they can continue to abuse?
A Jewish teacher in Jewish elementary school had pictures of young boys naked and got arrested.
Why can't people just take responsibility for their own actions? I don't see a connection between believing in a higher power and drinking, smoking, etc. When I lost my faith, it never crossed my mind to start doing things destructive to my body. If this is the only life, why would I want to torture the only body I'll ever have? Religion is a crutch for a lot of people, and if you need that for whatever reason, that's fine. Was it really a belief in god that Andrea needed, or was she missing that community that went along with going to church? People need that community and need positive reinforcement, regardless of their beliefs. Being an atheist among Christians can be a lonely feeling, but that doesn't make the Bible anymore true.
God is perfect, never makes a mistake.
He tested mankind with a talking snake
Things didn’t work out like he originally planned
He decided to change his religious brand
He killed his son to “save” mankind
From the curse and wrath of his self centered mind
Now we have hell for those who doubt
And the fairy tale salesmen have a lot more clout
I give it a 10.
Jesus said: Love your enemies, love your neighbor.
atheists are our enemies!
Those who are not rational need god to be good, for without the fear of hell, they are inherently evil. Which is why it is very easy to use religion to make them do evil things.
Those who are rational are good without a god. They don't need fear of hell or promise of heaven to be good, they are good because they are truly good people.
Atheists needs to be put in concentration camp.... I wish I became president and as soon I took in office the month after bye bye nasty nonbelievers!!
Well you need some form of intelligence to become a leader, so we know that there is no risk of seeing you any time soon.
Is that what Jesus would do? Let's consult the bible.
2 Thessalonians, 8-9:"In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power."
What a lovely religion.
This post shows the true beauty of religious love and conviction. It makes me glad that people like this have a christian god they can believe in and to tell them what to do and not to do. Christian cults are much easier to work with.
"........I wish I became president and as soon I took in office the month after bye bye nasty nonbelievers!!" – Martin.
Martin, the President on the United States is sworn to preserve, protect and defend the Consti-tution. You obviously don't know anything about it, so you wouldn't qualify to be a candidate. Don't feel bad about that, you have plenty of company.
Mitt?....Is that you?
Martin, put down the crack pipe...you'd be hard pressed to get a majority to go with you on that taking away freedom of and from religion thing in the consti.tution.
As for her doubts about why God allows suffering, WE are the ones who allow suffering. Almighty God designed a life for us that is full of peace, health and joy and all we ever had to do was to strictly follow that design by observing His word and laws for life. If we reject Him and His word, He is under no obligation to continue to provide protection or health for us. Psalm 91 clearly states that we must dwell with HIM as a loved one and THEN He will provide for and protect us. If you act like a family member of God, He will treat you lilke one.
BS, pure and simple. To hear you bray, one would think that all believers would live lives of peace and joy and would not be made to suffer.
No such thing is even close to being true and you are promulgating lies by claiming that faith will guarantee one a healthy, happy, peaceful life.
You can shove it.
Tom, Tom. You sound like someone who has suffered quite a bit. I used to suffer also, until I discovered the TRUE God through His own word in the Bible. I urge you to ask HIM to reveal the truth to you.All you have to do is to show Him the respect He deserves, and He, Himself will answer you. Once He has touched your heart with His pure and genuine love, you will understand and be changed. You seem to have respect for truth and this is the first step. Seek God, and you Will find him.
Blow it out your ear, Bonnie. I know what real belief did for MY loved ones. Not a damn thing. You can proselytize till you're blue in the face about what you imagine GAWD did for you. Your anecdotes aren't worth a ripe fig.
Tell that to my christian father who suffered years of cancer only to die a horrible death. Or is cancer our faults too?
"You sound like someone who has suffered quite a bit. I used to suffer also, until I discovered the TRUE God "
That just makes one sound too lazy to be bothered resolving their problems for themselves.
We do cause a lot of the suffering in the world by our own actions Bonnie, I agree. Through both our actions & our inaction. There are also times when we suffer adversity through no reason that we can comprehend. Shawn187 my father was diagnosed with cancer & died from it just 3 months before I was diagnosed with cancer myself. My best friend was also fighting cancer with me. I cannot say why it happens either, but I know it taught me a lot about love & faith.
My friend & I were at the treatment center together sometimes. We played cards while I was on an IV for 9 hours a day & pulled pranks on the nurses until everyone roared with laughter. We left silly messages on the patient message board for each other to find. She shared marathon board game nights at her house. I shared my children & my1st grandchild with her. We both lost our hair & were surprised when it grew back in curly & streaked with gray. We talked about everything & nothing. She helped me as surgeries, chemo, & infection nearly defeated me. I helped her as she lost her battle.
After all the treatments were finished, I was in sad shape with permanently fused bones from surgeries. I was not functioning well & I was upset about the fact that the specialists said this was beyond medical skill . My pastor's advice was to pray for divine aid. I believed it was possible, but I still remember feeling stunned, waking up to find it healed. More X-Rays showed there was no sign it had ever been there. If I hadn't had X-Rays from several different specialists showing the fusion I would have thought it could be an X-ray mix up. My X-Rays have been normal ever since.
I was overjoyed to be healed, but it made me ask question too. Why me? Why not my friend? What was the reason? I still have not figured them out. I probably never will. I guess that is why it is called faith.
At least I do not have to ask if God exists anymore...I have the answer to that question ;)
We are squabbling over the beliefs of ancient goat herders using a technology that no one of that time period could have possibly fathomed. What?
The two passages that should lead us on our path are these:
"God seeks those who seek Him"
Jesus said "They are to be taught by GOD"
The new temple is in each of us; that is where the relationship must reside. God teaches through the Holy Spirit. God was mad at all the false prophets and false teachers so He gave us Jesus and the Holy Spirit so man could no longer lead us astray. How many listened?
Very few. "go in through the narrow gate, because broad and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are the ones going in through it. Whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it." Matthew 7:13 & 14. Most people today do not want the truth as they actually prefer fantasy and falsehood; this is why they will not listen to our Almighty God. Jesus, God's SON, put it perfectly: "Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me."John 18:37. God sent His Son, Jesus, to present God's own word in action. Few care enough to listen.
The only one believing in a fantasy is just like you, Bonnie.
@Tom–last time I checked, Christians outnumber the atheists. I don't think Bonnie is alone, try again.
I am not speaking of numbers, doofus. I'm saying that I'm not the one living in fantasy-land; Bonnie is.
This is a GREAT testimony. I often have youth come into my office in tears telling me that they are doubting their faith. They expect that I will sternly tell them that they are wrong and that if they don't change they are in deep trouble.
And what I always tell them is "This is Wonderful! Now you can make your faith your own! Read, explore, and question everything that I or your Sunday School teachers say! If you really seek God you will find Him!"
I have had dozens of young people break down in tears of relief when they hear me tell them this. I have had some parents come into my office and question my sanity. And to a tee every single one of these young people stay in the church.
The ones who leave are the ones who never question until they finally blow up and then take off and go wild.
A Mennonite Brethren Pastor
Sounds like you have many students of below-average intelligence.
Everyone experiences doubt, no matter what they believe. Those students are lucky that you are a compassionate person who understands that.
The author can take her delusional beliefs and shove them up her a**
You mean in your mom's azz? Go to hell
Why such a vitriolic response to someone expressing their personal beiliefs? how is that "tolerance"?
You believe in hell? You brainwashed child.
Because morons like her vote ( with their imaginary deities and delusion beliefs) and they elect crazy people.
Unfortunately, morons like you vote too. Kind of balances out, huh?
She has a right to have her beliefs...Without your abuse. She has done nothing to you. You have issues.
The earth is not flat either.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.