Becoming an Atheist at a Christian University October 14, 2010

Becoming an Atheist at a Christian University

David Manes is currently a law student in Pittsburgh. He graduated from a Christian college.

He was a Christian when he went in but very different when he came out…

I have a bit part in the story, but even without that, I think it’s a really inspirational post. Reading it, I was reminded of Dan Barker‘s book Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. The main lesson I got out from the book was: Even if you’re fully entrenched in the religious world, it’s possible to leave it. All you have to do is stop relying on faith and start looking for evidence.

When I was a senior in high school, I applied to only one college, Harding University, and I luckily won a full scholarship to go there. Going to Harding was like going to church every day, because we had daily mandatory chapel and mandatory Bible class every semester. My friends and I talked about religion all the time, too, and had way more interesting conversations than anything I ever heard in church. Since every day felt like church, it was hard getting motivated to go to more church on Sundays and Wednesdays like I always had, so I pretty much didn’t.

I didn’t lose my faith. That phrase makes the experience sound like a bad thing, which it wasn’t, and makes it sound like the result of some personal shortcoming, which it wasn’t. There was no traumatic experience that shattered my faith, I just grew out of it. I took my own advice, studied the Bible too deeply and found it to be lacking.

I wonder how many students there are right now sitting in a Catholic high school or attending a Christian college who are in the same place. Maybe they had every intention to go to those schools, but along the way, they began to doubt their faith and ultimately gave it up.

What a tough de-conversion to make.

I was lucky when I became an atheist — I went to a Jain temple on a regular basis, but my entire life didn’t revolve around my religion.

There are people whose close friendships were made at a church, or whose jobs involve the spreading of religion, or whose families bond over their shared faith. When they become atheists and have the courage to say so, it’s unbelievably powerful to hear about.

On a side note, David says he met his wife at Harding. I wonder what she makes of him leaving Christianity… (Update: They’re both atheists. Even better!)


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • My wife and I are both atheists now. I’m glad I didn’t get attached to a Christian, but it is really helpful to be married to someone in the same position, having gone from a fundamentalist background to embracing atheism.

    Nice post! Thanks, Hemant.

  • Hey, I almost went to Harding! I went to Williams instead. I didn’t become an atheist WHILE there, but they definitely influenced my later atheism. And my husband did become an atheist while there, I am pretty sure.

  • Yahzi

    Actually, in the post he says “Our atheism.”

    So I’m guessing she’s fine with it. 😀

  • Tiffany

    Ooh, ooh, me! I also “lost my faith” at a Christian university (which I’m still attending). And I must admit, it’s kind of a tough situation to be in because all everyone ever talks about is Jesus. And we have mandatory chapel every week. And, even though I’m sure I’m not the only atheist here, it’s not like a ton of people can be open about it.

    I kind of wish we had some sort of secret signal we could transmit to each other. It would be useful. And awesome.

  • Silent Service

    Tiffany,

    Just glans around when everybody else bows their head at meals. You’ll find the other atheists really quickly. They’re the ones glansing around during prayer before meals.

  • David H.

    Jesus Christ, don’t people ever get tired of talking about him?! 🙂

  • Cheryl

    Sounds like me. I had been involved with religion all my life. It was the broomstick up my butt. There was also this tiny rational Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder who kept raising skeptical questions, so I decided to go to a christian college. Belmont is where I learned to point and laugh as it was very liberal. My best friend there was gay and the theater department was my only hangout. It still took a few years after graduation and a brief fling with New Age nonsense to finally yell “BULLSHIT!” and start enjoying my life. My only regret is not listening to my Jiminy sooner. Bravo to David and his wife for listening to theirs.

  • Alice

    I almost went to Liberty. High school is definitely the best place to lose your faith.

    He and his wife both losing their faith after attending the same Christian college strikes me as very romantic.

  • Siobhan in Vermont

    I grew out of my faith, as well, as the result of education. Though I didn’t attend a christian school (about as opposite as you can get, really). I was in an independent study program, and every semester (with the help of a professor) I crafted my own unique course of study. One semester I decided I wanted to deepen my faith by really studying the bible, its history, and the role of women in the early christian church.

    I thought I’d gain a better/deeper/more fulfilling understanding, and instead, I learned the -reality- of church history and bible history, as well as the roles of women in the church (big hint: in the early church, the roles of women were pretty revolutionary at the time, it’s only a hundred or so years later that the men regained control by busting women down a couple of notches when they decided which books were worthy to be in the bible)

    It took me a long time to give up the label “christian” after that, but eventually I did. It’s only recently that I’ve taken on the label “humanist” though.

  • Michelle

    The other side of this coin was shown to me in a conversation with a friend of mine who went to a bible college in MO. He said [basically] that many people drop out because it is harder to believe (even though he still does) after learning so much about religion. It takes a great deal of compartmentalization; when that can’t be done some choose to give up on the education instead of losing faith. It can seem too daunting to lose something that is such a huge part of ones life. I’m glad some are able to get out from under the spell, the stories are inspiring.

  • Michael

    “Growing out of religion” is probably the best way to describe my transition too. I studied theology for a while and kept waiting for the intellectual edifice that would butress my faith but gradually realized it was a house of cards. I’m so glad I don’t play that game any more.

  • Speaking of Catholic high school… Although I was already toning down my by-the-book Catholic upbringing, freshman year at an all-male Jesuit high school I had to take a Hebrew/Christian Studies class whose teacher emphasized Biblical criticism.

    The idea that the Bible could be allegorical, came from oral tradition and was revised and redacted over time, was mindblowing, and it inspired me further to question Catholic dogma and eventually my own faith. About a year and a half later, I concluded that I was at least agnostic, finally atheist, and transferred out of the place. The problems of Catholic school aside, it was worth it for that eye-opening class alone.

    Although my dad would probably chastise me for being so open-minded that my brain fell out. 😀

  • Nice article. I was an atheist all along, but kept quiet about it until quite recently (i just started a new blog and wrote a book). Well it was harder than I thought to be a vocal atheist, and it had consequences with my friendships and with the relationship with my girlfriend. You are right to admire the courage of those atheists coming out of the closet.

    anyway i’m new to this blogging thing. please check out my own efforts. thanks

  • Sheridan

    I like the term “grew out of it.” As a child I “grew out” of believing in Santa Clause; as an adult I “grew out” of believing in God. For me the two experiences came naturally and quite suddenly. In both cases one minute I was a believer, the next minute I was not. I can’t really explain why I suddenly became a non-believer, but it was the most liberating experience of my life!

  • Alexis

    I look forward to the day when Harding, BJ, Liberty, etc. all have Student Secular Alliance chapters!

  • I “grew out of it” at a Catholic high school. It’s pretty rough when you suddenly realize the silliness of it all right in the middle of your freshman religion class. I had really wanted to be there too… I stayed at that high school through all 4 years because I found a group of like-minded friends.

  • sarah

    I began my growing out process about the time i grew out of believing in Santa Claus, which was about 8 years old. At 12 I first tell my mom that I don’t think I believe in god. During high school i mumble during “under god” in the pledge of allegiance and never participate in church. I cannot imagine attending a Christian University where all they talk about is Jesus. I had a similar experience of constant Jesus talk. I was at a friends’ film party and there was about 15 other people there, all of them she knew, all of them from Moody Bible Institute, all of them talking in some form or another, about Jesus. This was only one night, i cannot begin to imagine hearing that all school year! Talk about awkward!

    I guess you can say I became an atheist while attending my Catholic grade school. I started early.

  • Michelle

    I got a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Eastern University, which is a Christian school in Pennsylvania (although when I went, it was still little Eastern College).

    Ironically, it was while I studied the Bible academically that I lost my faith in God. It was a very lonely, alienating experience-especially because I’m from Illinois and was stuck on the Christian campus, feeling like an outsider. My family is full of conservative Christians, so I still feel sort of isolated, but online groups like this are helpful.

  • Ben

    I became an atheist at Westmont College — A Christian Liberal Arts College in Santa Barbara, CA. I was raised in a little non-dom church called Berean Praise, and was regularly extolled to, “Be like the Bereans, who studied and search to make sure something was true before they believed it.” So in my own faith were the seeds of my atheism.

    Like the fellow above I too studied the Bible and all the other religions too closely and ultimately gave them all up.

  • ButchKitties

    I didn’t become an atheist in Catholic school, but it got the ball rolling. The class I had to take before being Confirmed made it obvious that I didn’t believe in the Christian god (benevolent God + eternal Hell does not compute). I didn’t become an atheist right away. I had a Wiccan phase, because I *wanted* to believe in a god. The Abrahamic god was just too horrible and too self-contradictory for me, so a religion that openly embraced cherry-picking was attractive.

    I went on to major in Religious Studies in college, and that’s when it became impossible for me to believe even though I still really wanted to. All the religions I studied claimed to have the answers to the same set of questions, but all of their competing supernatural explanations were equally devoid of any meaningful content. The reason you can explain the same phenomena by invoking Zeus or Yahweh is that neither answer actually tells you anything, it just applies a veneer of agency to what is still an unknown. Worse, it gives the false impression that you do know. It’s a way of denying your own ignorance. Accepting supernatural explanations is like thinking X is not a placeholder, but the actual answer to an algebra problem.

    My math teacher wouldn’t have let me get away with saying the answer is “x” no matter how difficult the problem was. So why should I let myself get away with doing the same thing by accepting “god” as an answer to questions about the universe? Placeholders are not answers.

  • Kaydon

    I too grew out of my faith at Calvin College, a liberal arts Christian College in MI. As soon as I became honest with myself and admitted that I was no longer a believer (a thought that scared me to death at first) i discovered that Christian colleges breed all sort of atheists, agnostics and heathens. Within a few months I stopped being so scared of my new status and learned to embrace it, at times publically stating my non-belief in class and hanging out with other non believers.

    I met my fiance there too and while he is more of a liberal Christian, he and I have a strong relationship and during his time at Calvin had some fun shocking people by dating “that atheist girl”>

  • If attending a Christian university won’t turn you atheist, I doubt anything will. If you can make it through a few years of that miasma of irrationality, and retain your religious faith, you’re probably right where you should be.

  • I have a similar story, only it took me 7 years after college to actually admit to myself that I’d stopped believing in my faith and become an atheist. That admission happened only this year, and I’ve only made it (somewhat) public this week.

    I depend on a part-time church job as my sole source of income at the moment, so this is a sticky situation for me.

  • Re: quote from Manes: “There was no traumatic experience that shattered my faith, I just grew out of it.”

    I have to say, that was pretty much my own experience. Even so, I find that a lot of Christians tend to accuse me of having had some sort of “bad experience” with other Christians. Nothing could possibly be further from the truth.

  • PettyBetty

    I lost my faith at Calvin College just like Kaydon. It is a bit weird to lose your faith in such a Christian environment–having grown up extremely Christian, it’s a bit like finding out you’re actually a replicant rather than a real person, and you’re always looking over your shoulder for Deckard–but I’ve already found a lot of other students who are struggling with or discarding their faith here. My best friend here is on the ministry track and when I finally came clean to her about losing my faith, it came out that she hadn’t been feeling it for about two years either!

    Most other people I’ve met at Calvin who’ve struggled with faith have gone through “dry spells” and come back to the fold somewhat, although still trending slightly agnostic. Of course C.S. Lewis says that’s normal and to be expected in a strong lifelong faith… so when I tried to tell my parents I was losing my faith, they basically told me to keep going to church and I would get over it.

  • joe

    in reading all these things, it reminds me of myself (sort of). i grew up in a very strick christian house. No TV, No Internet, No girls, No music while singing to God (just vocals), No doing any sins or you get grounded, and attend church 4 times a week. to be honest i hated it. i understand where everyone is coming from. the moment i turned 18, i got a girl and moved in with her. IF ANY OF YOU THINK YOU CAN SAY YOU GREW OUT OF CHURCH IN 4 YEARS, TRY 18! but here is the even crazier thing. i was faking church my whole life! while i was living with my girl, my spirit was getting convicted like no other. everytime we would have sex, right after i would feel horrible (not at first, but after a few weeks). my whole family was praying for me and blah blah blah. point is, Jesus slapped me in the face. i came back home, and startd to read the new testament. i realized (with a lot of prayer and grace from God) that i was living me life fake the whole time. it wasn’t until i understood the meaning of grace, that i started to really follow Jesus. and trust me, following Jesus doesn’t mean going to church every day of the week. it means going out of the church, to the people (like Jesus and Paul did), and sharing the good news of the cross. dont think im some weird church boy, because i know (to more of an extent than you guys do) where you guys are coming from. just really pray tonight to God. if you search for him, he will reveal himself to you. i will be praying for everyone here, May God have mercy on all you, like he did with me.

  • Francis

    I rejected Jesus intellectually at the age of fifteen, having grown up in a Christian home and knowing the Bible inside out. I got to the stage where I was a kind of agnostic, but I hated the very concept of the Christian God.

    Then God intervened in my life in the most miraculous way and transformed the state of my heart. I converted to Christianity overnight and it changed my life. So I haven’t looked back.

    I still have tremendous admiration for people who genuinely come to the conclusion that God does not exist, though, and come out of the closet about it, in the face of pressure from family or their university. It requires real balls and I’m sure God knows that too.

  • Mephista5

    Ah, another Eastern University atheist… I feel your pain. I am a sophomore there now.

  • Codonnelly

    I just graduated from Westmont College a week ago, and I have come to the conclusion that I think I’m now an atheist. It’s a really difficult thing to type. I don’t really know how to deal with it, actually. But it’s interesting to see I’m not the only one.