The worst news came as his parents were getting ready to spread the Good News.
I cried the night my parents told me they were going to become missionaries.
As a twelve-year-old, I didn’t fully understand what the word “missionary” meant, but when my parents explained it involved leaving our Jersey Shore beach town and moving to a place called Kyiv, Ukraine, I hated the idea.
As an infant, I was baptized at St. James Episcopal Church, and I grew up going to church with my parents every Sunday. Nothing but positive, joyful memories linger from that time in my life. The people there were kind and gentle, and after the worship service was over, they gave out free donuts in the downstairs foyer. The stained glass windows reflected rainbows of colors into the chapel, and the hymns were full of unique and memorable phrases.
But when I was about ten, my parents left for a new church, a Baptist church farther away from our home by the beach. My mother explained this new church was more focused on “missions.” While attending worship service at that Baptist church, I found out that the words “evangelical” and “missionary” were things.
My parents decided to become missionaries after watching a video presentation from a Brooklyn native who had recently returned from a year in Kyiv, Ukraine. Suffering the residual effects of post-Communist collapse, the people of Ukraine now had the freedom and (the man claimed) the urge to believe in Jesus.
Who would come spread the good news to those in need?
My parents, that’s fucking who.
I spent 1995 in Kyiv, while attending a tiny American missionary school—it was more a hallway than a school. There was only one other girl in my class and about two dozen students in all grades, first through high school, combined. The other kids came mostly from the South or the Midwest, mostly from Baptist homes. Even though I was now an MK (missionary kid), these others had been raised under much stricter rules. I had very little in common with most of them, and I spent a lot of my time alone, exploring the nearby botanical gardens, or causing trouble with my brother and sister and random Ukrainian kids we met on the streets.
My parents spent the year immersing themselves in the language and culture, attending church services in basements or holding Bible studies in our flat for dozens of university students. Although I desperately missed my Jersey Shore home and friends, I made do in Kyiv. Firecrackers were legal, so I had that. You could buy a quarter-stick of dynamite equivalent of a buck. My brother and I spent countless hours collecting empty beer bottles that were littered around the streets, tossing firecrackers into them and running away from the glass shrapnel. The babushkas would yell and shake their canes at us, but we just laughed and ran away. We explored the catacombs underneath the ancient churches, where hundred-year-old corpses were mummified in gold caskets. I got in some fights. A kid named Sasha pretended to be my friend and then stole my Game Boy. I watched a couple of plays in this beautiful old theatre hall. My siblings and I adopted many of the city’s stray dogs as our own, feeding them sausages that most Ukrainians couldn’t afford. The year passed quickly.
Near the end of our trip, my parents told us this missionary gig was going to be a permanent one. I cried again.
The next few years of my life were a blur of different cities, apartments, couches, suitcases, airplanes and jalopies. After my father received his master’s degree in divinity from a seminary outside of Chicago, it was time to head back to Ukraine (although this time we had my new baby sister). The missionary organization had a flat all set up for us in Kyiv, which would be our home for the foreseeable future.
Well, it wouldn’t be my home, exactly. As the rest of my family unpacked their bags, I boarded on a crowded Soviet-era train and took off west across Poland and into the hills of Germany. Boarding school. It was a college prep academy in a quiet corner of southwestern Germany set up to teach good Christian things to the children of missionaries.
I was completely surrounded by evangelical Christians.
All the kids could recite Bible verses on command, but no one knew any good Simpsons quotes. No one listened to Social Distortion or Crass, that’s for sure. Their CD players were filled with Christian bands like the Supertones, Caedmon’s Call, and the Newsboys. None of the girls wore short skirts or tight shirts (those were outlawed), and a “Six-Inch Rule” attempted to keep me away from all the pretty girls (and it didn’t work).
My roommate and I calculated it out when we graduated: I spent one-third of my junior and senior years of high school grounded or punished in some way. But, overall, I loved it. I wouldn’t trade those two years for anything.
While I was at boarding school, I thought a lot, more and more deeply than I had before in my life. Day in, day out, I was so thoroughly inundated with Christian peers, Bible study groups, worship songs, and church sermons that I could no longer simply ignore the claims being presented to me.
Sure, I’d heard about Jesus and the Apostle Paul before, but those were stories told on Sundays while I sketched and doodled in my notebook. Faith meant less to me than the Sunday evening episode of The Simpsons. I’d sit in the pew, hear the story, and then I’d go out to Wendy’s for lunch with my family. Faith was not a part of my identity, even though it had become the core of my family’s identity. Faith was a ball game everyone was playing right in front of me, but I sat the game out.
But at the missionary boarding school, everyone was expected to join in, whether they liked it or not. I felt suffocated by the amount of time and effort the school administration spent on teaching us about the faith we were all supposed to have. So, I started digging into the questions that I had been bouncing around in my mind over the years. I had shelved them because no one seemed interested in talking about these questions. I thought they were good ones to ask, though, so I began piecing them together and looking for specific answers.
Questions from 16-Year-Old Me:
- Why does God care that Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit?
- Is something wrong just because God says so?
- If we can figure out the difference between right and wrong on our own, why is God necessary in the equation?
- Everyone talks about “knowing Christ,” but what does that actually mean?
- I can’t hear this guy, and I can’t see him, there’s no evidence that the Gospel story is real, so why should I believe God even exists?
- Why is everyone always asking forgiveness for every little “sinful” thing they do?
- How can it be “sin” if it doesn’t harm another living thing?
- What is wrong with sex and why is everyone so afraid of it?
- If all my Christian peers were born into Muslim homes, wouldn’t they be worshipping Allah instead of God?
- Why are God and Yahweh real but not Allah?
- Out of all the religions and denominations out there in the whole wide world, how was I lucky enough to be born into the one true religion?
- Is there any decent reason to think Hell exists?
- And, if Hell exists, what kind of a sick bastard would create such a place?
- Is God a psychopath?
- If Christianity is the only way to Heaven, why did God create a world where the vast majority of people who lived would end up in Hell?
- Why are we studying The Flood, The Virgin Birth and The Resurrection like they’re actual, historical events when there’s no evidence for this?
These were big-time questions.
And the consequences of asking them were steep. But I allowed myself the freedom to follow the answers, wherever they would lead me. If this process led me to apostasy, so be it. I could no longer accept half-assed answers.
I didn’t decide to become an atheist.
Generally, I don’t choose to believe or not believe something. Rather, over time, I become convinced something is likely true, or I become convinced that something is likely untrue. And, over time, I became convinced that the claims about the God of the Bible and Jesus were very likely untrue.
When doubting Christians reach this point, they (myself included) frequently get tripped up by the idea of Hell. If the whole belief system is based on a threat — if you don’t believe this, you will suffer eternal consequences — a lot of people are bullied into some sort of Pascal-style wager. I struggled with fear for a while, but once I stepped out of the church and got out into the world, my head cleared.
I came to believe that the chance of Biblical Hell existing was so microscopically low, I had no good reason to worry about it. If it turned out there was a Hell, I reasoned, this would go one of two ways for me. I would explain to God that he didn’t give me enough evidence or good reason to believe he was real, and that I valued honesty more than fake belief. If he accepted that line of reasoning and let me into the Pearly Gates, well, then all was good. But if that wasn’t good enough for God, if he wanted to banish me because I couldn’t believe some whacked-out, two-thousand-year-old stories, well, then I didn’t want to spend eternity with that jerk anyway.
So, because I accepted none of the God claims presented to me. I was, by definition, an atheist.
Calling myself an atheist was not an act of rebellion against a religious system that I abhorred — though that seems a perfectly legitimate reason to call oneself an atheist. Rather, my path to atheism was a long process of self-acceptance, a recognition of my innermost thoughts and deepest feelings, and an application of core concepts about knowledge and reality.
Skepticism has always been something of an innate aspect of my personality. But one of the crucial goals of any good Christian youth program is to squash skepticism. Even if a doubting Christian takes the skeptical route, it isn’t easy to carefully scrutinize everything you’ve been taught to believe.
It took years of self-reflection and wrangling before I began to feel confident enough to talk to people about these issues. Eventually, I became comfortable with my disbelief. As I removed myself from the pressures of religious institutions and the unnecessary burden of religious doctrine, I felt neither guilt, nor shame. Only relief. I was doing what I thought was the right thing for what I thought were the right reasons, and it felt amazing.
Bit by bit, the claims I had been told to accept as truth dissipated into irrelevance. God, Jesus, Hell, Heaven, Sin, Redemption, Grace, the Inerrancy of Scripture, etc., these were concepts without meaning, and I didn’t want them in my life.
Since I was a kid, I’d been told by religious authorities that life without God was no life at all. Left to our own devices, we were sinful, detestable beings. We wouldn’t amount to anything without the saving grace of Jesus. Perhaps one of the most exciting things about accepting my disbelief was discovering the hollowness of those claims.
Finding fulfillment and peace was simple. With the comfort of books, interesting new people, the natural world, animals, food, wine, surfing, music, and sex, I had all I could ever want. And it was all here, right in front of me, in this world, the only world that surely exists.
For years I had dissected the Bible, analyzed the doctrines, and tried to rectify myself before an unknown God. I had asked all the questions I could formulate, and I arrived at a final answer: Faith was not for me. It was a big, big world out there, with so many amazing things to explore.
I had to get busy.
And thank you for sharing this.