Sunday, June 16, 2013

He Almost Became A Priest, Became Atheist Instead

Recent changes to /r/atheism[1] have resulted in a group of people upset to monitor the new posts[2] and downvote all posts that aren't complaining about the new changes.  A recent victim of the protests was a man who posted his story of almost becoming a priest and ending up atheist[3].  He gave me permission to share his story, but has since deleted his account for unknown reasons.
I thought I'd give a short introduction since I'm fairly new here.
My relationship with religion has been a very stormy one. I enjoy some of the cultural aspects (I'm probably unique in that regard on this forum.) But that's because I'm a professional musician and performed pretty much the entire English Cathedral repertoire at some point in my life. (Random fact: most choristers are atheist anyway.)
The storminess comes from the imprint that the fear of hell had on my heart from a very young age. My parents were very strict fundamentalists and had no difficulty telling me that people who did not hear about Jesus were going to burn for all eternity. When you're 8 years old, that's a rather traumatizing thought. It bothered me the first time my parents told me this, and it never stopped bothering me since. Even after liberalizing and dropping the doctrine of hell from my belief system at age 16, the fear persisted. What if I'm wrong? Then there were the question of the OT genocides, which bothered me from a young age as well.
My parents told me to read the Bible and it would strengthen my faith. Well, It's more likely that advice is what has led me here today. In college, because of my active participation in the church (Anglo-Catholic by choice), I made the decision to enter the priesthood. This was the first of three times I would made this decision, but I aborted every time, THANKFULLY! So I began reading the Homilies on the Book of Romans by St John Crysostom. If you ever want to deconvert someone, Crysostom is really the way to go. The man is a vile, misogynistic, homophobic, antisemite, and lots of other not nice thing. And yet he's one of the Three Holy Hierarchs, one of the three most important theologians in all history. I had to stop reading after about the 7th homily because it was so disgusting. (I don't want to make excessive comparisons, but in this case, I'm not sure excessive comparisons can be made.)
At this point I had been approved for sponsorship by my third parish. It's a very presitigious parish (eg. the rector has a knighthood) and I felt honored that they had selected me. But I had to put my studies down or else I was going to lose my faith. A year later I came out as gay. This was not a problem to my parish, but it was a problem to my more Evanglical fundamnetalist family. No matter how much liberal theology I had imbibed, I could not escape the fear of hell.
And then one day my mind went into a loop. "I'm going to go to hell. I deserve to go to hell. How could I not go to hell. What a terrible human being I am. I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened and more. Hell is clearly where I'm going. I'm going to go to hell." This loop lasted for almost four weeks. I could not get my brain to stop repeating these and similar words over and over again. (I was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder which may explain the loop.) I dropped into the deepest depression imaginable, and I'm already used to depression. It became nearly impossible for me to go to work and stay anywhere near concentrated. I had been gripped by fear, and the fear seemed totally reasonable. I had failed. I had fallen short. I could have done a hundred times better and I would still deserve horrible things. Worst of all I was gay. And while I had theologically reasoned myself out of believing that being gay was a sin, that's not what I was taught and what I was taught was taking over.
At the end of four weeks I said the wone thing that got me out of the loop. I said it so meekly, and I was so scared. But I already knew that I believed it. My entirely theological understand of god and of the world had been eroded down. And so I said it, "I am an atheist."
"I am an atheist."
"I am an atheist."
I was still terrified. But the loop in my mind stopped. And I realized I hadn't believed in god in years. Everything I had been doing was trying to create an image of myself that my parents could be proud of. Also, there were those cultural aspects of Anglo-Catholicism that I could have fun doing, even if it was pointless motions and dressing up. I mean, I have a campy side. But all of that fell apart quickly when I finally accepted reality for the first time.
I had never read any Dawkins, or Harris, or Hitchens. I'm not even sure I knew there names at the time. But the entire super-structure of my theological beliefs came tumbling down. There was nothing I could do to hold them up. I didn't want to anymore. I am an atheist. :)
PS Even my screenname here is a referece to that past as Sarum Blue was my favorite liturgical color. The papists will say it's not liturgical color but I really dgaf.
If you're familiar with the stories of Teresa MacBain & Jerry DeWitt[4], or any other graduates of The Clergy Project[5], parts of his story probably sound familiar too.  It also reminded me a little of Matt Dillahunty's story .

I hope this guy wasn't scared off Reddit by the protest downvotes.  His story is quite common, our society is rough on people in his situation.  I hope he ended up using the link I gave him for Recovering From Religion[7], as I think it would a great resource for him.

Studying religion has a way of turning people atheist, but disbelief is the expected outcome of people honestly investigating invalid claims.



  1. That was a great story, there were definitely some elements in common with my own (primarily the fear of hell parts) but it sounds like his was a much more difficult. I really hope getting caught in the /r/atheism drama didn't make him decide to abandon the whole thing.

    With respect to that drama, do you know if those people are still downvoting everything?

    1. As far as I can tell, it's still happening. Although, I don't follow it all that closely.