True Story: I Searched For God and Found Myself Instead

This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things. This is the story of AJ and how she went from being an Evangelical Christian to an Agnostic/Atheist. This interview is not meant to be a commentary on those readers who believe in God. This is just one reader’s story about her experience with organized religion. Please keep comments respectful and resist the urge to try to change her mind.

Tell us about your relationship with religion when you were growing up.
I’m fortunate to have grown up in a very loving family. I have two older sisters and one younger brother, and my parents are still happily married. We lived in a small town in northern Minnesota, and my parents and grandparents on both sides were very active in conservative churches. They sang in the choirs, were members of prayer and Bible study groups, and attended church every week.
What led you to become an Evangelical Christian?
My interest in Christianity was sparked when I was in eighth grade. As I’m sure many people did, around this time I started to question who I wanted to become. I was getting involved with a “Mean Girls”-esque clique at school, pouting at home in true middle-child fashion, and not understanding much about the world around me. My parents, likely sick of my poor attitude, urged me to join our church’s youth group. After meeting new people there, I started to feel very accepted and comfortable at the Wednesday night meetings. I regularly attending these for the next couple years, then went with the group of about thirty teens and a few supervisors on a mission trip to Cincinnati, Ohio.
After putting on a free car wash, cleaning a senior citizen center, and feeding the homeless over the course of our week there, I felt incredibly uplifted from helping others for the first time in my life. I assumed that inner glow was from God, and decided to devote my life to him. In Christian terms this was known as “accepting Christ as my personal savior” and “asking him into my heart.”
What was your life like when you were an Evangelical Christian? What did you believe? How did you interact with people?
Being an Evangelical Christian – committing everything to “sharing the truth” about God with others – was great in some ways for a couple years. At church I continued to find a lot of the emotional support that all teens crave, and my new found faith kept me from trying drugs or drinking. However, looking back, I can see that much of my “blind faith” back then was simply ignorance. I lived in a sort of fairy-tale world, thinking of God as an invisible, intangible best friend, and all the non-Christians around me were lost souls whom he had placed in my life to help. I read the Bible almost like a horoscope, trying to fit its positive lessons into my own life, while ignoring the confusing and violent parts.
As an Evangelical Christian, I traveled on several more mission trips, during which our group would hold after-school Bible-teaching programs for children and knock on strangers’ doors (the outreach tactic also utilized by Jehovah’s Witnesses) to discuss our faith with them. Back at home, I became obsessed with being as Christ-like as possible, constantly looking for opportunities to talk about God with my high school classmates, and trying to be as “pure” as possible. This meant I didn’t swear, fool around with guys, drink, smoke, watch R-rated movies or listen to much non-Christian music. The cliché “What Would Jesus Do?” question really did dominate my personality – I disciplined myself by imagining Jesus with me all the time! This lasted into college.
An overwhelming factor in my life through all this was guilt. It was rewarding to try to help others, of course, but picturing God watching and listening to me – even as a loving, forgiving father-figure – was difficult. Even while fully believing that I was going to heaven and that I had God on my side, guilt was a motivating factor for most of my actions, and looking back I see that this stunted me from truly being and loving myself.
When did you start questioning your beliefs?
When I was twenty, my perception of the world really began to change. There’s a stereotype that goes around in many conservative church circles – that when “good Christian kids” go off to public universities, they lose their faith to a dangerous, liberal agenda. Several young adults I personally know slowly became disinterested in or disillusioned about religious ideals during this period. Many still believe in a general idea of God, but don’t have the emotional dependence on prayer and church attendance they did as teenagers. My family and Christian friends like to label me as one of those that have “turned their backs on Jesus.” However, my journey out of Christianity wasn’t about rebelling or just losing interest, but about searching for God and instead discovering the beauty in other people and cultures.
As a sophomore in college, I met several incredible people who opened my mind about spirituality without even knowing it. I’ll describe just one of the dozens here. My roommate that year was a twenty-year-old devout Muslim from Bangladesh. She and I spent countless nights discussing our individual beliefs, and I was surprised to watch her live a lifestyle almost identical to mine: she prayed daily, was committed to being a virgin until marriage, and joined a religious
A pivotal moment in my life happened one spring evening when I was doing homework in our dorm. She came in to gather her books, and excitedly told me that a group of her Islamic friends was meeting to eat a traditional Bangladeshi meal, pray about their final exams, and then study for a few hours.
After she left, it hit me that a few nights before, my Campus Crusade for Christ (a widespread Christian club) friends and I had done almost the exact same thing – but for a god with a different name. She and I were alike in so many ways – living to worship God and help others – and yet Christians are supposed to think that Muslims will eventually be eternally punished by God if they don’t accept Christ. And, conversely, Muslims are supposed to think that Christians will eventually be eternally punished by Allah.
It dawned on me: if her system of beliefs could be so misled, why couldn’t mine? I suddenly found myself completely unable to believe my fun, loving, caring, humble, Islamic roommate would someday be rejected by God and sent to hell.
After this night, and after getting to know several other amazing, selfless non-Christians, I slowly began to question absolutely everything in the Bible and the church sermons I’d heard over the years. When I asked my closest, most intelligent Christian friends about standard teachings, I was unnerved to discover their answers didn’t really run deeper than, “I don’t know – just try to have more faith in God” and “That’s up to God, and we’re not supposed to test him.”
The more I searched and prayed for clarity, the more I felt I was just talking to myself, and only finding answers that contradicted the Bible. So I conducted an experiment: stop praying completely for two weeks. This happened to coincide with my college graduation and tons of stress. I would stop myself from speaking to “God” when I was overwhelmed, though, and instead give myself a pep talk or call a friend. The two weeks passed, then two more, then two months, and so on, and somehow the ever-present guilt I’d experienced began to dissipate. I felt less worried in general, and was still just as happy and grateful for my life, without ever talking to God or asking for his help.
Nothing really changed – except my emotional makeup. I began to gain confidence in myself instead of worrying about what God wanted, and I started thinking once again about who I wanted to become, not just about how I was supposed to act.
This continued for the next year and a half, and I kept discussing these topics with anyone and everyone I encountered. I couldn’t get enough of learning about different worldviews, and as I did, I began to see that they all had both positive and negative aspects, and none were provably truer or more valuable than the others. I also discovered I was still able to love and give to others without doing it in the name of God. Post-Hurricane Katrina, I went with a church organization to volunteer in Louisiana, and it was unforgettable. It didn’t matter that I no longer believed in the god they were serving; we were all trying to help others.
How would you define your religious beliefs now?
I consider my views to be somewhere between those of atheists and agnostics.
Due to my experiences, I am an atheist emotionally. I don’t sense or believe that there are any gods in the universe. I see our lives and emotions – everything on earth, really – as physical actions and chemical reactions.
For instance, I believe my sense of Jesus’ presence back when I was a Christian was just a result of my own thought patterns. Talking to Jesus, like a child playing with an imaginary friend, often calmed me and gave me a feeling of comfort. This wasn’t because a spiritual figure was actually listening to and caring about me, but due to the fact I was sorting things out in my own mind and picturing a supernatural force helping me.
Nowadays, rather than pray, I reflect on my problems and goals by writing about them, talking with a friend, or thinking them through while exercising – and the resulting uplifting sensations and comfort are the same as, if not better than, those I felt after praying.
Still, though my emotions are in line with atheism, I am mentally agnostic. Neither myself nor anyone else on earth has ever been able to prove the existence or nonexistence of a god. Therefore, Christianity could be true! Islam could be the correct religion! Hinduism might present the one right path to heaven! And so on. Or we could all be wrong – a very different god could be shaking her head at us, or maybe there’s no divinity at all. Because I’m still open to possibilities, and am eager to learn more while personally unable to prove anything, I’m quite agnostic.
I do find myself shuddering at the creeds spread by most religions, though, and adamantly oppose doctrines that encourage racism, homophobia, sexism, violence, and other beliefs that harm or belittle people. I think if you threw humanism, atheism, and agnosticism in a bowl and mixed it all together, you’d end up with my current worldview!
What advice would you give to others who are struggling with their faith?
Question everyone and everything every day, with a heartfelt goal of finding answers.
Don’t accept weak, pat answers, even from the best-intentioned people. Rather, consider why their responses are weak in the first place.
Be kind and encouraging to the person you’re conversing with, and be sensitive about these topics! No one enjoys having an opposing opinion crammed down their throat, and you don’t want to hurt people or burn bridges.
Embrace discomfort. It’s not always fun to read a different religion’s holy text or attend a worship service, but you’ll learn loads about others and your own upbringing.
Accept that you’ll never have all the answers, but let this spur you on to the ones you can. Apathy has never helped anyone grow.
If you honestly seek truth, you will learn things in ways and at times you never expected. Transcendental moments do often happen in memorable settings – like while engaged in deep conversation around a bonfire, or while meditating to music – but some of my most helpful revelations have come through watching a sitcom, or having a nice chat with customers in the bookstore where I used to work.
Struggling with faith is a fantastic stage to find yourself in. From here, you only have more wisdom to gain!

I love life and other people infinitely more than I did before, and have accomplished things I never would have if I hadn’t become an agnostic/atheist. Thanks for letting me share my story!Any (respectful!) questions for Ashlee? What has been your experience with religion? How did you come to your current views?

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  1. Diana

    Thank you so much for posting this! I went through a similar journey myself during my teen and college years, and it helps to know that others have had the same experience.

  2. Becca

    I'm one of the people you described that just became "disinterested", not that I'm not still a Christian, I'm just too lazy/not devoted enough to pray every day or go to church. Eventually I see myself going back, because God had always been such an integral part of my life. I am a swearing/drinking/have-sex-before-marriage bisexual Christian (if there is such a thing) but I just can't see letting go of him. I have many more friends that aren't religious than those who are, but I couldn't stand thinking that they'd be sent to Hell for that. Perhaps I'm closer to Unitarian-Universalist?

    Completely respect your right to think for yourself (you do you) because in the end you have to make up your own mind about things. (I've had customers give me religious tracks at work and it always annoys me, so I try not to do the same thing to other people.)

    • AJ

      Thank you for your thoughtful and honest reply. I hope you've continued to grow and learn about the belief systems that work for you! Cheers! 🙂

  3. Chelle Lynn

    I went through a VERY similar realization after high school, although I definitely had my own doubts even when I was a very devout Christian. I played the part of the good Christian girl because I thought that was what I should be. Younger girls looked up to me, but I couldn't tell them that when I prayed I felt nothing. When I sang praise and worship songs for the youth group, the only joy I experienced was the joy of singing.

    After high school, I wanted to date this guy (who is now my husband), but he was very non-religious and actually had strong negative views about Christianity. I couldn't reconcile my love for this man with my belief in God and knew that I would have to choose between them. I choose what, to me, was more real and am now very happy with my life sans God and sans guilt. It took me a really long time to get here, and my relationship with my very Christian family is still a little strained, but I am finally happy with my life and with myself.

    Thanks for your openness, I'm glad to know that other people share a similar story!

    • AJ

      Thank you for sharing part of your story as well! I'm so happy you met someone who could support your growth and share your goals. Cheers to you and your family!

  4. Joey

    I'm an atheist, but grew up in a liberal Christian manner. Basically, I discovered philosophies of other religions (like Daoism and Buddhism) and felt more of a connection with those. However, in really thinking about my views, I realized I was trying to fit my belief system into a situation where I still believed in a god of some sort. In an epiphany moment, I realized I just don't believe in a god, but I still feel strongly about some philosophies associated with religions.

  5. nikkig8403

    Thank you so much for posting this! I was raised in a non-practicing christian family, and i grew up believing that there was a god although i hardly ever prayed. When i was 18 i went through a personal tragedy and i remember everyone would say things like "God works in mysterious ways" or "god has a plan" and i couldn't see how such a "good being" could let such horrible things happen to people. Over the years sense then, i questioned why i believed in religion. Then about a year ago, one of my friends from high school had posted something on his facebook, saying pretty much that if you weren't a christian then you couldn't live a happy life. and right then and there i realized that religion seems ridiculous to me in so many ways. I realized that there is no way you could prove that any higher being exists. but at the same time you also cannot prove that it doesnt. But i will no longer "blindly" believe. I believe in things that i know. I believe in the good of people, i believe in chance and probability. I believe that saying a prayer, is really just saying an affrimation to yourself. I believe in science and i believe in love. I think of myself as agnostic, and i feel good about that.

    • AJ

      I totally feel you! I'm sorry you had to go through rough stuff to reach your revelations, but I'm glad you've chosen science and love (two of the greatest things in life, IMO!). Cheers to my fellow agnostic!

  6. Amy --- Just A Titch

    I was raised in a religious home and left the church at age 19 and have been a lot happier since then. I agree with a lot of what you wrote here—it's very similar to things I've dealt with. Great post!

    • AJ

      Yay to finding greater happiness through personal growth! Cheers 🙂

  7. evev

    I went through a lot of the same things, although I still consider myself to be christian (like Becca above, I'm probably a Unitarian at heart). Thank you for sharing this; religion and tolerance and culture has been on my mind a lot lately, and it's important for people to realize that people who have different beliefs aren't evil and that not everyone wants to be "saved".

    I live in a very Bible Belt-y part of the Bible Belt, and being a Good Christian Girl was something I felt like I needed to be. I think there is a lot of judgement and hostility toward people with different beliefs in my area (obviously not from everyone, and I'm not saying that all Christians are intolerant). There are various evangelical groups and individuals that come to my college campus and preach hellfire to the students. Recently, my school's gay rights group wrote chalk messages around campus for Equity Day that were defaced with religious-flavored anti gay messages. My city's one and only Islamic center has been vandalized, and burned Korans were left outside it. It's very sad to see.

  8. Grá

    Did I write this? Are you sure? Life has been free of hostility and judgement for about two years now, I still believe in God but I think we've twisted it to suit ourselves, a belief system is usually based on love and yet all of them engender so much hate. We are doing something wrong! Also religion is prob the only thing that hasn't changed since its inception which is a problem!

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. AK

    This is one of those posts that cuts to the quick…EVERYTHING you wrote resonates with my experiences and feelings.
    And though I haven't been able to completely dissect myself from the Judeo-Christian God (probably something to do with the fact that I was raised so strictly believing in that paradigm), I cannot reconcile myself to the fact that a loving god would oppose any love in the world (e.g. homosexuality), or would really care about some of those things that organized religions continue to harp on about (e.g. above-PG-rated movies); wouldn't how I live my life, basically wanting to be a loving person who makes a difference in the world, matter so much more than my taste in books and movies?

    Actually, the area of my greatest struggle remains with my family, who tend to pathologize anything and anyone who does not fit their paradigm; to them, there is something fundamentally wrong with anyone who is not a Christian and, moreover, THEIR kind of Christian. This is my difficulty; input, anyone?

    (Thanks SO much for sharing, religion/faith continues to be such a sensitive topic!)

  10. Anonymous

    I feel like a lot of these comments reflect some serious damage done through the "Church" and "Christians."

    I'm sorry that there haven't been Christians in your lives willing to answer though questions. That breaks my heart a lot.

    I can't say that I agree with most of you. I've had a very different experience. All I can say is that it breaks my heart to see the Church so misrepresent the love of Christ.

    While I disagree with your conclusions about Christ, this post is a good reminder not to give pat answeres to those hard questions. I did go through a similar 'questioning' phase in my faith, and I'm thankful I had an abundance of people who answered my questiions and didn't force me to assume their belief system.

  11. Autumn

    I find your point on religion very interesting. I'm a Christian, although I don't have the view that anyone who isn't a Christian will die and go to hell. I think the Jesus, God, and the Bible is all up to interpretation- the Catholics interpret religion their way, Muslims interpret their religion their way- to me it's all the same divine dude that's known by different names and has A LOT of books.

  12. Amanda

    I'm a Christian but the kind who went to college, discovered that Christianity plagiarizes heavily from preexisting religious sects, got introduced to the idea that God stepped down on Earth (Mount Mirah) and made the world from there. As a mountain girl, that clicked instantly and next thing I know I was stepping down into a tub and being bathed in the symbolic blood of Christ.

    Then I let it lapse as life moved on and my church obsessed about money as they went into debt from trying to purchase land just as the economy tanked hardcore. I moved away.

    41 days ago, I lost my best friend because she was murdered. My inner me, my soul, must have gone into her when I kissed her goodbye and then into that box when I was kneeling in the mud as I lowered her cardboard coffin into the ground. But now, I pray daily and beg God to take care of her, to let us be together again.

    Prior to this, I had hoped that death was the end, just …no pressure for once. A release. But now I'm consumed with guilt and a longing that can never be satiated. I'm so miserable without my best friend and full of guilt that I couldn't save her life. I had asked a hundred times since seeing Inception if we were going to grow old together. The answer came back to me, washing over my mind as if she was saying the line from the movie, "We already did."

  13. Kelsey

    This is really, REALLY similar to my experience, only take everything back a few years. I became a heavily devoted Christian at a really early age and left when I was about 13 after coming to terms with my own bisexuality. The only part I disagree with is when you said something about the time while struggling with your faith being fantastic- I completely disagree. I was horrendous for me. The thought that I could be WRONG, that there might not be a Heaven, that my God wasn't as loving as I originally thought- it terrified me. And I was too kind to tell my dad I had lost faith, so, I got dragged to church every sunday for the next 15 or so years.

    No, the time after I accepted my new beliefs- now, thats a fantastic time. I can learn about all these other belief systems, I know that I have never been a more accepting person than I am now- its awesome.

    Also, do you know your type of belief, like mine, is literally called an agnostic-athiest? Thats someone who doesn't believe there is a higher power, but acknowledges theres no way to actually know and that there really could be.


    This happened to me too! I was raised an Evangelical Christian but slowly my family became disenchanted with the religion.

    At around 23, I read a book about the history of intoxication which opened my eyes to religion being man made, after that, and because of a lot of religions teachings that didnt correlate with my humanity, I decided to stop being religious.

    Another book I read called "Dance of the Dissident Daughter" re-affirmed my beliefs about religion being anti humanity. As in, religious laws go against natural human nature and also are very anti women!

  15. Tiffany

    This post was really enlightening. I used to be a very enthusiastic Catholic, attending church, participating in youth groups, talking about God, that sort of thing. But when I grew out of high school, there were things my faith didn't seem to be able to answer. Maybe I was too angry at that point in time to listen (so I tell myself) but my church friends became more and more superficial and I felt that I couldn't leave the answers to God anymore, I had to find them for myself.

    Eventually I stopped believing in church as an institution although I still believe in God because I can't shake off my experiences when I was actively involved in church.

    I'm glad that I'm not alone in this even as in uni, most of my friends have joined church groups and constantly think about God in their life. It's surprising that everything we do, there's someone out there who feels the same.

  16. Carrie

    Yes, thank you for this article! I too was raised in a devout Christian family in a northern MN town. In the past several years I have come to terms with my atheist beliefs and in the process have shed a lot of guilt about how I was supposed to act and who I was supposed to be when I was religious. These days I feel like a weight has been lifted from my chest – I'm that much happier! However, I have yet to tell my family – I'm not sure how well they will take the news.

  17. cassiopeia

    As many of the other readers have said, I also had a similar experience with my Catholic upbringing. This was such a great interview. Thank you both 🙂

  18. Anonymous

    I think there's an incredible amount I could say about my own spiritual process but it's all very disorganized right now and has already been reflected in the all the wonderful previous comments. I just wanted to commend everyone in the comment section for their civility and open-mindedness and to TRULY thank Sarah for the True Story series. It's such a brilliant idea. You accomplish more than you know by just providing a respectful platform for people to share important life stories. Seriously- I'm sending you a virtual hug 🙂

  19. Ruth

    hey im a christian and by that i mean i have accepted the Lord Jesus as my own and personal saviour, knowing that He died and rose again for the forgiveness of my sins…its amazing!!!

    i HATE defining my relationship with Jesus as a 'religion'!!!!it is the COMPLETE OPPOSITE!

    It is a personal relationship with the creator of the universe,there is nothing more amazing than that! and knowing that when i die i will go to HEAVEN.

    life has many a trial and heartache but i know my Saviour will be with me each step of the way…

    how can one say then that all this is a religion?!

    and do you know what the most amazing thing is??

    its for EVERYONE!!
    thats why Jesus died on the cross FOR YOU!!!

    please look up John 3:16,

  20. Noah

    Great story, yours is extremely similar if not identical to mine. I have a question for you though, do you miss the feeling of talking to God still? I know I do, and that seems to confuse both my Crhistian and Atheist friends alike. They both feel like I'm confused, and maybe I am haha.

    • AJ

      Hi Noah, it's AJ, the interviewee of this True Story! I'm sorry it's taken me this long to reply; I just now saw your question.

      On rare occasions, I feel a tinge of missing the "comfort" of a belief in a god. It can be mentally relaxing to think that a higher power is looking after you and will make things right if you converse with her/him/it/them. I think it's totally understandable to want to talk to a god, especially during tough times; years of practicing a religion or faith will naturally cause some lingering emotions like that.

      I've found that spending time in nature is especially soothing, and it doesn't involve confusing dogmas, strict rules, or resulting guilt (not that all religions do; that was just my experience before). It may sound odd or conceited, but I really do talk to myself during these times, too. I journal it up, meditate in my apartment, make pros and cons list about current issues I'm facing, etc. These actions have really helped me out.

      I hope you've been doing well and are continuing to grow and learn about yourself and your beliefs. Thanks so much for your comment and question. Cheers! <3

  21. pietro

    i say, you've found what you were looking for.

  22. Eleanor Harte

    I had the opposite path – grew up in a relaxed Catholic home where we went to church and that was it. I joined Campus Crusade for Christ when I came to college, and I got to know Jesus. I don't agree with everything the "Christian religion" preaches, but I enjoy my relationship with God and above all try to love others like Jesus did.

    Your comment about not at all supporting "racism, homophobia, sexism, violence, and other beliefs that harm or belittle people" is the way I try to live my life too. I think the most important thing is to love others, and after that I don't have any right to care what you do. I don't believe Christianity is the only true religion. Like you said, how can we believe our Muslim friends won't go to heaven just because they believe in a different god?

    So many questions that we will never have the answers to, but I wanted to thank you for sharing your story. Though I'm still a Christian, I identified with a lot of it.

  23. Laurie Allen

    I know this is an old thread, but I just want to add something.

    I am like many others here – I grew up in Evangelical church, then struggled terribly with my beliefs after I went to university. This went on for many years until I finally broke away from the church in my 50s (I am now 65). But my experience was, that while thinking independently was great, I also found myself drifting into doing things that I was ashamed of. Some posts say churches are very restrictive in their outlook, but when I left, I was a bit like a ship that has thrown away its rudder. The ship has a great sense of freedom – it feels it can go anywhere it likes – but really it’s mostly just drifting with the current, and a danger to itself and other shipping.

    So I go to a different church now, and try to get what I can out of the services and not be too intellectually proud. I suspect it’s impossible get that safe, confident feeling back that I had as a teenager in church. Now I have to think and evaluate more, but, hey, I’m an adult after all. Also, I can admit my failings and say I need forgiveness and help (although it’s a struggle).

    Hope this helps somebody else.

  24. WhoAmI

    Hi. I am using a nick name “WhoAmI”. I am 70+. I happened see your yes&yes. When I searched for ‘stories of search for God’.
    I very well understand Your points. I consider lucky to have seen your site and read about you. I was born in an orthodox Christian family in an Indian village. From a fundamentalist Christian faith I have been traveling through skeptic>atheist >agnostic > SELF > Truth road. The journey started when I was 10 and was told by my Sunday school teacher that Gandhi will not enter heaven as he was not a Christian. The journey is unfinished and will continue to the moment of my last breath. What did I experience and learned ? Briefely:
    Jesus Christ is wrongly presented to the world by organized churches as a human sacrifice to compensate the sin committed by Adam and Eve and due to them the whole human race. This misrepresentation has demeaned and devalued the teachings of Jesus. After I regained my freedom to think I realized what Jesus taught was about love and sacrifice for the good of fellow human beings

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