It was 2005 when I entered my junior year of high school at Aurora Christian Schools in Aurora, Illinois. This marked the third year I would be attending the private Christian institution while some of my classmates boasted receiving their education there since kindergarten. It was in this year I felt most comfortable in my environment having become familiar with the student-body, staff and faculty, while developing the skills necessary to balance class, sports, work, and weekly chapel sessions (chapel was a block of time designated for worship bands and a sermon of some sort).
My family were average church-goers–we didn’t make it to every Sunday service but an effort was made to attend as often as we could. There were times when we shopped around for a church that made us feel welcome and associated with our morals or values but generally speaking, we were able to find a stable Christian community we were comfortable being a part of.
God, Jesus, and the overall Christian-way was never fully adopted or embedded within me as a child because it was never a major part of my life. Christianity still played a role and influenced my beliefs but I considered it as something that provided answers and understanding where my family might not find elsewhere. Plus, all the other families and kids my age were doing it so it made worshipping and Bible study a “cool” thing to do. The impact it had on me changed when I was admitted to Aurora Christian.
I considered myself a believer when I arrived as a freshman but honestly, I wasn’t in the same league as some of the more “seasoned” students. Sometimes seen as a troublemaker, I broke rules that some might say were too strict, but there were other times punishment was deserved because I did idiotic things that only a moderately rebellious teenager would make. Regardless, it took me a while to find my bearings but still didn’t take to some of the more stringent aspects of the rules and code of ethics. But by my junior year, I was ready to be all-in–at least, at the beginning.
The first semester began with me finally feeling a sense of belonging at school and within my community. My religious studies helped me understand the meaning of life and assisted in my search for a purpose in the world. That purpose was to serve god by dedicating my life to him and helping others find “the way” so I could enter the kingdom of heaven when I died. I didn’t commit all aspects of my life in service to the lord because I was still influenced by some external secular forces, but I was well on my way.
Then I entered Mr. S’s (I’m using an abbreviation to protect the identity of this person) classroom to learn Psychology 101, from a Christian perspective. Mr. S wasn’t like most teachers at Aurora Christian, he had a real-ness about him other teachers seemed to lack. He was honest, straightforward, quick to tell jokes, and didn’t ignore the secular world’s existence like other members of faculty. Most of them stayed away from taboo subjects or discussing things from a non-Christian point-of-view, but he was willing to embrace them and often shared stories of his life before he found Jesus. There was one instance when he told a joke that didn’t sit well with some of the students (I promise it was only inappropriate in a school full of do-gooders)…needless to say, there was a talking-to from the principal that Mr. S wasn’t happy about.
Halfway through the semester we learned about several mental disorders and became familiar with the basics of how the brain works. It was revealed to us how the brain is responsible for creating our thoughts, decisions, and emotions we feel based on our experiences. Mr. S liked to ask us difficult questions (like is Christianity a cult?), and one day asked if it’s possible that our brains created the concept of god and if the presence of the holy spirit was something generated by a delusional mind. My classmates were quick to answer ‘no’ based on personal feelings they got when praying or worshipping and how it was different from other emotions. He didn’t dwell on their responses but the look on Mr. S’s face indicated their answers weren’t sufficient.
After class that day I stayed behind and inquired more about his question. Everyone else seemed willing to accept that the feelings they received were from god, but like Mr. S, that wasn’t enough for me. I told him I thought it was possible these feelings weren’t associated with god himself, rather emotions and chemicals triggered by my brain. Singing and praying and all those things made me happy and made me feel at peace, but it didn’t necessarily mean it came from god.
Mr. S told me everyone experiences these emotions differently so there’s no way to determine if it is indeed god or not. He said that he believes god is within all of us, but he doesn’t necessarily influence emotions directly, our brains do. He said that god was real but just because we can’t feel him doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have faith, but we should learn to distinguish between these two influences in our lives–it might provide clarity. I left his room with more questions than answers but had to get to my next class.
In the months to come I attended more chapel sessions, went to church, and continued to pray every day (at breakfast, before each class, before baseball practice, before bed and in between all the school mandated ones) but the question remained. It wasn’t long until I was consumed by what Mr. S said because it opened my eyes to thoughts that were always stuck in the back of my head but never really considered possible–maybe god isn’t real—maybe nothing is real. I began to question every aspect of my life and considered all options when I thought one way or felt another way.
Slowly, I began conversing with another junior in school that I hadn’t paid much attention to the first few years I was there because we swam in different social circles. After a few discussions between classes, I learned that him and I thought alike. He shared the same questions and was beginning to develop the same thinking pattern I was. In a few short weeks, John became my best friend and we distanced ourselves from our religious constituents. We eventually became outcasts because we challenged the status quo of belief and acted without the restrictions of religious morality. Neither of us were crazy kids or anything like that, we simply said curse words when we wanted to and listened to rap or death metal (a big deal in our environment), and didn’t spend our evenings at youth group or praying, among other things.
It was just a matter of time before we concluded that god didn’t exist and renounced our faith. After much reflection and search for answers, it was revealed to me that my feelings for god were just that, feelings, created by chemicals and signals in my brain as a response to stimulation confused as spirituality. For the first time in my life, it felt as though I was able to think freely, or objectively, openly questioning the meaning of all things and not just through the lens of my religion. I was no longer bound by the confines or restraints in which my environment, or Christianity as a whole, held me to. I was free to think, question, and act as I saw fit (so long as it didn’t hurt anyone else). It’s not to say one can’t do that when participating in organized religion, it just seemed easier for me to do so without it.
The question of whether god existed was something I thought about long before Mr. S came around and it was not his influence that caused me to lose faith, it was merely his ability to make me think. I “believed” once because it was what everyone else did and was what I was raised to believe. I blindly followed these ideologies and the idea of god because it was what the people around me promised to be true and never questioned it all, at least openly, until that day. From then on, I’ve continued down the path of a non-believer and I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
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