The headline in the news was that a woman had gone missing. Or perhaps she had already been missing for a while, and her disappearance was just now garnering national attention. I can’t recall the details of the story. But for some reason, I remember the woman’s name very clearly. It was Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

“Who’s that?” I remember asking my mother.

“She’s a bad person,” my mom said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because she doesn’t believe in God.”

This was over twenty years ago. I don’t remember the exact words of the conversation with my mother, of course. Perhaps she wasn’t so direct in equating unbelief in God with being a bad person. Maybe what made O’Hair bad in my mom’s eyes was not that she was an atheist, but that she was an atheist activist—an iconoclast who was bent on taking away people’s religion.

Regardless of whatever subtleties might have been part of my mother’s reasoning, the impression that I came away with at the time wasn’t subtle at all: Atheists were bad. When I looked at O’Hair’s picture on the television screen after that, she even looked evil, with her masculine features and her tinted glasses.

My understanding of the world was pretty simplistic, and I assumed (without ever having put much thought into it) that just as in all the TV shows I watched, there were exactly two sides to everything. When it came to religion, those two sides were, of course, God and the devil. Atheists, I supposed (again, without putting much thought into it), had to worship Satan. There was simply no category in my mind for people who truly didn’t believe in God. (I see now that a lot of Christians, including adults, lack such a category.)

As Christians, our family was on God’s side, of course. O’Hair was on the other side. That made her one of the bad guys, and so there seemed to be little reason to lose sleep over the fact that she had been kidnapped. She was probably getting her just deserts. (Again, I’m not saying that my mother was coldheartedly approving of O’Hair’s fate; but this was the route my mind took upon hearing my mom’s pronouncement.)

Some time later, it came out that O’Hair had been murdered.

She’s in hell now, I thought.

The idea of O’Hair burning for all eternity didn’t bother me very much. She had, after all, chosen her fate. What bothered me was the question of why a person would make such a choice. I mean, what kind of idiot would you have to be to choose atheism, knowing that you would go to hell? I would certainly never become an atheist. I was sure of it.

Well . . . guess what? I’m an atheist now.

I don’t worship Satan, of course. I don’t believe in Satan, just as I don’t believe in God.

I’ve learned that atheism is not a matter of faith, as so many Christians make it out to be. I don’t take it as an axiom that God cannot exist. I’m not constructing my worldview in such a way that it will fit by design on a chosen foundation of godlessness. In fact, for me, being an atheist isn’t a choice at all—just as it must not have been for Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

I realize now that my question—why a person would choose to be an atheist—never even made sense in the first place. I could as easily believe in God now as I could believe that I can fly. It’s not a matter of refusing to believe; nor is it a matter of not wanting God to exist. I would love for there to be an all-powerful, benevolent being looking out for us and bringing about perfect justice for everyone in the end. But just as wishing that I could fly can’t cause me to believe that I can fly, wanting God to exist can’t cause me to believe that He exists.

The fact is that belief is not a choice; it’s an involuntary response to the information that one’s mind has received about the world. No amount of wishing and no act of willpower can enable you to genuinely believe something that a lifetime of observation tells you isn’t true (however long or short one’s life may be up to the present point). And what my observations tell me is that the god of the Bible isn’t real.

So it is by no choice of my own that I have become an atheist. In fact, the process of losing my faith was extremely unpleasant. The most devastating part of all was that my sense of purpose evaporated. The source from which I had derived all of life’s meaning disappeared like a mirage. The years that I had spent worshipping God, studying the Bible, and sharing the gospel seemed wasted.

I had been taught that the reason people leave the Church is that they want to live a life of debauchery. They love the pleasures of sin more than they love God, and so they abandon Him in order to pursue their own selfish desires. But that’s not at all what it was like for me. In fact, the very idea sounds downright ridiculous—contemptible, even.

I took no pleasure in leaving the church, and my sights were not set on a life of sin. On the contrary, I wanted nothing more than for God to rescue me, to fan the dying embers of my faith and restore my confidence in Him. But instead, it became clear to me that the whole thing had been nothing but an illusion to begin with. It was an awful realization, and it led me into depression.

I am now emerging from that depression, and I want to tell my story, if for no other reason than to process my own thoughts. I’m not out to de-convert anybody. I’ll just be happy if my story brings solace to others who are going through the same painful transition.

Join Henry Rambow on Twitter: @HenryRambow

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