After years of intense study, I joined the New Atheists and rejected my upbringing.
Around 2007 after a brief stint in Denver, I sidetracked from a computer science career to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago - looking primarily for apologetical answers. All I needed to do was to apply the principle that all truth is God’s truth and follow the evidence wherever it lead. Naturally everything from philosophy to science to theology to spiritualism would, when studied in depth, lead back to the One True Faith.
At this point the dark presence would only occasionally appear and I had learned to ignore it. But my arrival in Chicago was met with a dark and evil presence stronger than any I had experienced back in Wichita or Denver. I can distinctly remember a moment in my Chicago dorm room. Normally when I would feel the dark presence, it would hover near me, just watching, usually for five to ten minutes. But in Chicago, I remember feeling that it was a different type of presence like a more powerful being. And strangely, when it noticed that I was aware of it, I felt it instantly hide itself and the dark feeling vanished. “That was odd”, I thought. “Why did this presence not want to be seen?” That had never happened before.
It might be worth noting at this point that the feeling of this dark presence was almost always when I was alone, during a mixture of waking and sleeping, and if I left the room where I felt it and then returned it would still be there. It was not sleep paralysis as best I can tell, because one time I even went and got my dad and brought him back to check it out. But was it all in my head? I had never had any audible or visual hallucinations.
As best I could tell, there were only three possibilities to my supernatural experiences:
How can we know which spiritual experiences are in someone’s head and which ones are real? This question perplexed me.
Sometimes other Christians would say they experienced similar things. They would occasionally share stories about a house being haunted, or people hearing demonic voices but these stories almost all tended to come from remote places like Africa or South America where witchcraft was regularly practiced. People would talk about missionaries who had photos that seemed to show dark auras around the spiritually oppressed. Can we trust these stories?
Around this time an ethical dilemma occurred to me. The golden rule states that we should do unto others as we want them do unto us. Jesus - echoing Confucious - even hinted this was a foundational principle of all morality. If I wanted people to study Christianity to such and such an extent, should I not study their views just as much in depth? If I wanted an atheist to read all the apologetics books, should I not learn all about biology and history and astronomy and archeology?
As I indulged myself in studying and questioning, I absorbed philosophy, history, logic, and more like a sponge while at Moody Bible Institute, way beyond what classes required. I read most of the ancient apocrypha (Book of Enoch, Jubilees, the "lost" gospels, etc.), studied evolution and biology, listened to hundreds of debates with Christians on every topic imaginable, and read countless books and papers by famous apologists and scientists and atheists like Bertrand Russell, Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc. I consumed every book C.S.Lewis had ever written, got to hear the apologist Josh McDowell in person, read about various views of the Christian fathers, and studied the arguments against most of the Biblical prophecies. I watched easily over a thousand YouTube videos trying to find a single video - just one! - with convincing evidence of anything supernatural and was always left disappointed. The more I studied the more concerned I became about faith. Every faith claim seemed to be based on a shaky foundation.
At this time I prayed what would probably become one of the most important prayers of my life. It also has proven to be probably the most reckless and wild prayer I would ever pray. For the sake of my story, I will hide what the prayer was because for the next ten years of my life I nearly forgot about it because I thought it was irrelevant to what followed. Near the end of this story I will share what it was.
As my knowledge increased, I became embarrassed at how poorly Christians would respond to the deep questions about the faith. The best questions would come from scientific atheists. In my opinion they would put most Christians, even Christian apologists, to shame. In some cases, like with Dan Barker, they were former Christian preachers themselves (I even met Dan Barker once in Chicago). The skeptics, especially men like Christopher Hitchens and Matt Dillahunty (whom I also met in Wichita), always seemed to come out ahead.
To my embarrassment, Christians tended to sneak emotional arguments into every logical discussion. When asked a direct question about a Bible contradiction, most Christians would, like clockwork, say that a “proper” understanding of the context would clear things up. Then when pressed deeply on what the “proper” context was given that the texts had transmission errors, most Christian apologists would say we cannot know all the details of the time in which the text was written so we have to just trust that it was inspired in the original manuscripts. Then when an atheist would ask where the original manuscripts were, Christians would say - almost as if hiding the cookie behind your back would convince your mom you did not take it - “well, we don’t have them”. I began to agree completely with Bart Ehrman's research.
But surely there must be something behind all the Christian experiences! People like Dwight Moody, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, and Polkinghorne fascinated me because they were able to maintain a spiritual perspective and inspire many people while also somehow not requiring the Bible to be perfect in every way. Strangely many conservative Christians would say they loved these men for their fruit and contributions to the church but “their theology needs help”. It all seemed so arrogant to me and confused. The most effective and balanced Christians seemed to be the least dogmatic about most theological points.
One day I was in the elevator at college. This particular car had a broken “close door” button. A kid rushed in the elevator and, as usual, the door stayed open. This kid started pressing the “close door” button over and over. In my head I was thinking “this is so stupid, the door is just going to close anyway”. And to my horror, I realized this is just like prayer. Prayer is just as dumb as pressing a broken close door button in an elevator. The prayer will probably be answered anyway - even if you don't press the button and actually say the prayer. Is prayer a broken close door elevator button?
Over the next month or two, I spent time carefully and analytically testing every aspect of my faith with logic and reason, and my faith was failing repeatedly. As I studied other world religions, I discovered that some of the greatest examples of modern miracles with thousands of witnesses were within the Catholic church. But as good protestants, we believed most Catholics were wrong about nearly every important doctrine. And then I discovered the miracles in Islam, Hinduism, animism, and more. One key detail emerged: people normally interpreted every supernatural event through the lens of what they already believed. If a person has their mind primed to believe in haunted houses, they seemed to be more likely to believe they experienced a supernatural event in a haunted house. If we are to be ethical in our interpretation of the world, we should probably interpret miraculous events equally rather than giving favor to the paranormal events that fit what we already believe. The best spiritual or paranormal events, then, are the ones which contradict what we believe. For example, people who do not believe in aliens but then get abducted. These stories, I found, were equally as believable as the Bible stories.
My head was spinning and I knew something had to give. I will spare you the details of discovering hundreds, if not thousands, of Biblical discrepancies. Eventually at the age of 23 I knew I had to make what I thought was the most important decision in my life: was I still a Christian?
At this point, I could not stand before a group of Christians and tell them with confidence that their faith was true, because I was discovering that the evidence was just not good enough and the idea of true is so relative depending on which Christian you talk to.
One day I woke up, broken but hopeful, and switched my status on Facebook from Christian to atheist.
Some of the most vitriolic attacks I received were from Christians. If this had been the middle ages, I felt they would have burned me at the stake. But the thing I was still testing for was the existence of the Holy Spirit. It occurred to me that if the Holy Spirit really existed, I should be able to see some consistency in how Christians were interacting with me. After all, if they had the Holy Spirit inside of them, perhaps at least one of them would be able to tell me something extraordinary? If a single God really wanted me, he would give me the same message through more than one Christian. Instead, the responses I got were so… all over the place. Either so few "Christians" were really connected with God, or God clearly was a construct of their imaginations. I was leaning toward the latter.
I debated and spoke with hundreds of Christians, trying to be gentle, compassionate, and logical. The more consistently I was attacked, the more angry I became. Eventually it turned into bitterness and I would attack back. Christians were liars who believed in a false hope and my attempts to find the truth were rejected by them because I was threatening to take away their spiritual toys! I believed that there was absolutely no good evidence for anything supernatural, even though I wanted parts of it to be true. And now the target of my knowledge, mirroring the New Atheists of the time like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, was all religious people. I felt duped and deceived by the church and that if I had never had my brain filled with all this junk about hell and demons then I would have never suffered the depression and dark presence in the first place. After all, if your brain is never filled with a supernatural idea, and supernatural is just a figment of our imaginations, then nothing supernatural cannot possibly affect you, right?
Around this time I had an intense spiritual dream where my body was being consumed and filled by a demon. It slowly moved throughout my chest and lower body, filling my arms and legs and eventually reaching up my neck and into my throat and mouth. As it took over my mind, almost in a terminator fashion, I nearly cried out. Then I awoke. Sweating and heart beating, I calmed down as I took in the morning sun streaming into my Chicago apartment. Thank God, it was just a dream! Clearly one more example of how toxic religious belief is! If I had never been taught anything religious, I would obviously have never had a ridiculous dream like this.
For the next ten years while an atheist, I do not remember any spiritual experiences. No voices, no dark presences, no panic attacks, and no doubts about going to hell. Just complete radio silence for anything remotely paranormal.
I dove into my atheist life with two goals: catch up on all the sinning I was missing out on and overcome all the psychological "garbage" from Christianity. I wanted to be a happy and free atheist, living life free of any supernatural mental trappings. I became a humanist and was excited to be able to try and live a moral life without any gods and finally free of all these bad spiritual experiences. During this time I even attended therapists and went on a retreat with Marlene Winnell who specialized in rescuing people from fundamentalist thinking.
After deleting Facebook and creating a new account, I swapped to a new secular friend group and pushed myself hard into my career as a computer science major.
During this atheist time, I did have one rule for myself: I hated lying and deception.
The thing that led me away from supernatural belief was a devotion to the truth. If I lied, it would be an abandonment of that principle. Yes, I did sometimes hide things, but if pressed directly I would always try to tell the truth. This lead to a catch-22 when talking to Christians who held strict doctrinal positions on “falling away”. For those who are not initiated, there has been a long-standing debate in the church about whether a "true" Christian can actually leave the faith. When I told Christians that I once believed and now I did not, they would reply by telling me I was lying. Obviously no "true" believer would leave, right?
My career and friendships outside the faith grew while my relationship with my family fell apart. They were all Christians and I was a rebel atheist. They, bless them, had no idea how to deal with me and for the most part moved on with their lives after desperately trying to convince me I was wrong. To be fair, I was probably a nightmare but it hurt tremendously that nobody was honest enough to admit that I had some good points. I felt unbelievably alone, and even more alone as I discovered some sins that many Christians were committing and hiding from others. It all seemed so fake. This is what everyone outside the faith saw when they were looking in. It made me sad that I had tried so hard to live the Christian life when most of them did it for show.
But in all this I still left a door open to the supernatural. My devotion to the truth meant that if someone - or something - could give me a scientific supernatural event then I would be willing to accept it. After all, my rejection of the supernatural was for logical reasons and therefore a logical reason could bring me back.
So I said one of my final prayers before embracing atheism fully:
“God, or aliens or whatever you might be, I have studied diligently and see no reason that you or anything like you exists, but if you do can you please give me a sign that passes some scientific rigor? Give me something with witnesses, that is not natural, and that is reproduceable. I do not trust visions or dreams or anything that could only happen inside of my head. I need something external and verifiable.”
For roughly eight years I lived in Chicago in this new life, trying to adapt to a secular world.
After a failed and depressing year and a half attempt to restore my relationship (e.g. try to get them to accept my atheism) with my Christian family by moving back to Wichita, Kansas around 2015, I was one of the few who, on the day Donald Trump got elected, decided to accept a job offer in Sweden. Sweden was in the news as being a happy secular country and I figured it was worth a shot. But something was about to happen that would change my life...