As a young adult I continued to genuinely participate in Church life. I led a youth group to a Church conference, I prayed regularly and I even tried to find a Church to attend while I was away at university. My formerly staunch conservative views on evangelism and homosexuality had moderated. It seemed as though I was settling on a more sustainable, but less intense type of Christianity for myself.
One winter weekend I was invited to go to a friend’s cottage. The other people going were among my closest friends and they were also my most Christian friends. It’s not that I expected it to feel like a spiritual retreat, but I thought it might be in some way different than the time that I spent with “secular people” (such as my high school friends or friends from work).
We went up to the cottage on Friday night, poured some drinks, played cards, threw snowballs – it was a great time. On Saturday morning we all went outside for a walk on the frozen lake. After a while everyone else had gone inside. Since I was already wearing the obligatory single pair of old snow shoes (that are at every cottage I’ve ever been too) I stayed out a bit longer. I found myself standing alone on a frozen lake. Looking back at the cottage I saw an idyllic scene. The cottage was set back in the woods along the shoreline. Gentle snow fell in the midday winter sun. Wood smoke wafted out of the chimney between the frosted pines. It was a classic scene of beauty and tranquility in nature.
My upbringing told me that this was the right time to have a God moment. Silence and peacefulness in nature was an opportunity to recharge my soul. So I prayed. I opened my heart to God and invited him to fill my soul with an experience more wholesome than the boisterous, sangria stained crude humour of the night before.
But God didn’t say anything. This was mostly normal as I didn’t actually hear voices in my head when I prayed. But this time it felt like no one was there. Not that God was there and silent. It felt like there was no God anywhere. It also made me feel like the time I was spending with my friends at the cottage wasn’t even a gift from God. It now felt like it just was what it was. Weekends away are fun and having close friends to spend time with is very fulfilling and relaxing. But these things weren’t of God. They were just great human experiences. Suddenly I felt like I understood my secular friends much better.
My reflection standing alone on the frozen lake was all my own and no God was there to experience it with me. And it didn’t feel lonely or sad. It felt very realistic and sort of freeing. It felt great.
A few days after I got home I asked a pastor in my church to have coffee with me. I wanted to talk about the challenge to my faith that happened over the weekend. It was nice to have someone to talk to about this, but my pastor didn’t seem to worried about it, and didn’t really try to encourage my faith. So I drifted a little bit more.
I always really enjoyed the social connections that I made at Church. At times we had a fairly active young adult group. It was basically just a social group. There was pressure from some older people in the church for us to meet regularly during the Sunday School hour and to have some type of Bible study or regular faith-oriented events. But mostly the group just seemed happy to go out for Thai food and play board games on an extremely casual basis. It was with this experience in my twenties that I really began to understand church as fulfilling very ubiquitous human needs.
It became so obvious to me that what made churchgoers most happy was just being with other people. Eating together, singing together, families getting to know one another. There was worship and prayer too, but the basis of the enjoyment of church came from making connections, being around like minded people and having the Church be a part of your identity. It was being part of something bigger than yourself.
Even as I was realizing that the Church was based on these non-religious human feelings, I remained actively participating in church life. I guess I felt it was worth taking communion and sitting through sermons just to have coffee with my friends afterwards. However, my drift from Christianity continued. Soon after, I first started to become uncomfortable with my identity as a person of faith. It began with me being very uncomfortable with leading other people in their faith.
When I was praying aloud in a group or in some type of worship leading position it would feel ok at the time. Although I would often wonder if I was actually helping other people worship, given that I had such serious doubts about religion. And even if this is what they wanted to hear, I wasn’t sure that I was ok perpetuating this belief system. Comforting my adult self with prayer seemed harmless, but I began to feel very concerned about my participation in the indoctrination of children. My drift from faith continued.
One day at work one of my colleagues was in my office and we were talking about our weekends and procrastinating. I forget the details of the lead up, but she said something about death and felt she needed to “knock on wood“. She knocked on my desk, but realized it was not real wood and quickly looked around for some real wood. The two of us looked around my office, and eventually (at my suggestion), she settled on the door frame as real enough wood to knock on. After she left, I thought to myself about how absolutely ridiculous that charade was.
I didn’t think that she was truly superstitious, she was just incorporating the knock-on-wood action into the way she communicates with other people. It’s symbolic of not wanting to “tempt fate” regardless of whether or not you think there is a fate to be tempted. I thought it so strange that at one point we both had to stop talking and look around the room for some real wood to touch. At that moment I decided that I was not going to do that again. It felt silly and I knew it had no effect on the real world in any way. The final thought I had about it was “Ok, Clark. Back to work. Enough of that nonsense.”
But then I had another thought that seemed to come out of nowhere: “How is God different?”
And immediately I realized that this was going to be a problematic thought. I tried to ignore it for the rest of the day at work, but while walking home it came back with a vengeance. I tried to reason some way of shielding my religion from the same critical thinking that I had applied to a simple superstition earlier in the day. My reasons included that my religion was more complicated than knocking wood, and that my religion was shared very deeply with many people closer to me.
But all of this rationalizing was only temporary and ineffective protection for my religion. A few days later I decided that religion was a large, complicated and culturally and historically integrated superstition. Just a big superstition.
I’m sure that if at this point I had had more direct exposure to Atheism or Secular Humanism I would have been receptive to leaving religion sooner. It was only the inertia and comfort of being surrounded by the Church community that kept up my Christian identity. My faith was running on fumes.