Recently, while sitting in the kitchen as a friend helped me dye my hair, the topic turned to death. We had both experienced close friends dying in our early twenties, and we were discussing how we dealt with it. I sat facing away from her, as she checked the foils on my hair. “I just have to think that they are in a better place, in heaven,” she said.
I thought about those words for a minute. Then I replied, “For me, it soothes me to know there is no after-life. Like, there is completion in it. They are gone, that was their life, and it’s okay. I don’t have to worry about seeing them again. It’s been helpful to really process their death and know they are gone.”
My friend was intrigued. “I’d never thought about it that way,” she said.
The truth was I hadn’t always either. I identify as an atheist now. But I haven’t always.
Senior year, my high school started offering an “ethics” class. You might expect an ethics class at a public school to study the branch of philosophy, but this was on religion—morals. We discussed different religions, sometimes looking at issues like assisted suicide or abortion. The class mostly came back to Christianity and its merits. It was public high school, but this was also the Bible Belt. This was a town whose nearby attractions included the world’s largest cross.
I was a lukewarm Christian by default, but had never gotten “saved.” Growing up, my parents took me to Sunday School, and one by one, I watched the other kids get dipped into the holy bath water in front of the congregation. (Was it just me, or did it always seem to be the same water?) But the whole thing felt a little creepy to me.
Still, sometimes at church, I felt alive and more connected to myself. I felt “God.” It was the same feeling I had sometimes in nature, during a hike when the sunlight made lace patterns through the trees. But at church, it was followed with shame. A preacher at my friend’s Baptist church warned about the heathens who were not saved. I couldn’t sleep after that, worried about my soul, about not being with my parents or my friends when I died. But for some reason, I still didn’t come forward.
When adolescence fell, I felt confused about the idea of an after-life. I was still intrigued by that feeling of God inside of me, the voice of God who would give me guidance, and I wanted more of that. If anyone asked, I would say I was a Christian. But in my teenage bedroom, I experimented with other ways to channel it. I tried Wiccan spells and played with tarot cards. I read astrology and collected crystals. The universe was so vast and it seemed there were many ways to be connected to it, to this feeling of God.
Then I started dating a devout Christian. If I wanted his parents to “bless” our relationship, I had to go to the Baptist mega church with him every Sunday. The very same church that made me feel so afraid and shameful as an 8-year-old for not being saved. It became my Sunday ritual to tune out the sermons as best I could, and silently mouth along during songs. Then that week in ethics class, I would oppose what I’d heard on Sunday—arguing for gay marriage or abortion rights. For a presentation on different religions, I brought in a Wiccan speaker.
But the pressure to “be saved” was still there, from my boyfriend and his family. I argued with him about how messed up Christianity was, but at the same time, I was holding onto it—I didn’t want to be a “heathen” in his eyes. After a particularly rough Sunday, one of the assignments in ethics class was to free-write on our personal relationship to God. I wrote that it seemed everyone wanted me to be the agnostic-atheist or the Pagan-Wiccan, but I was a Christian. The teacher, a member of the same Baptist church, read my piece aloud while I laid my head on my fists.
The summer after high school, I made a ‘zine that centered on sexism in the Bible. I was working it out, and as I thought and wrote more, I was able to let go. Later, in the confines of my college dorm room, I tried other ways of finding God inside of me. I tried on Buddhism, the Bahá’í faith, Paganism. I began to see religions as philosophies or political texts to guide societies.
I began to see that when people talked about “God,” they all seemed to be getting at the same thing. It was that feeling inside of me I had identified—that guiding light, that voice. But all of the religions seem to have flaws, and I remained skeptical about an after-life. When I began thinking about a creator, logically, it was hard. When I talked about God, it was a metaphor.
I began reading about atheism online. I read about how God, in all of academia, is just a concept. I read about what science and psychology know about our brains and how they are able to create experiences. I found paths of therapy and meditation that tap into that feeling of oneness and light—not as God, but as parts of ourselves.
I realized God’s voice, that feeling of light and connectedness was my voice, my feelings. And I could access it whenever I wanted. All of my spiritual searching was suddenly simplified. Logically, God, the after-life, these things don’t exist. But what I experienced inside as “God” was still in me, and stronger than ever. The things I was arguing about in that ethics class—gay marriage or the death penalty—were from my own sense of ethics, not ancient dogma.
It doesn’t make me any less interested in the history of spirituality. I like to celebrate Pagan holidays and use tarot cards as a way to ask myself questions about my life. I still practice Buddhist forms of meditation. But I also defer to logic and science. I know it is up to me to find grounding in life. God is not in the driver’s seat—I am.