Me: Hello World.
World: Hello. What’s up?
Me: I’m a Christian now. I got baptized last year on August 28th, 2022. Full dunking.
Evangelical: Praise Jesus!
Eastern Orthodox: Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and forever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
World: What the f—?!
World: But you’re an atheist.
Me: Well, not anymore.
So yeah, I got baptized. At an evangelical church, no less. Southern Baptist. Yep.
Five years ago—and not coincidentally, two years after California legalized recreational marijuana—I accepted an invitation from a Christian friend to attend her son’s baptism and took my younger son with me. We’ve been going to her church ever since. Last summer, my younger son decided to get baptized after attending a church camp. I decided if he’s going to do it, I would too.
Believing in nothing sucks.
How we act in the world is rooted in our beliefs. The problem I had with believing in nothing was this: I began to believe there’s nothing to believe in. When I believe in nothing, then the belief that there’s nothing to live for starts creeping into my psyche in a very unhealthy way.
I’m not a particularly happy person. I was not a happy kid. I won’t go into details. As the novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote in the beginning of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My parents loved me and did their best. I honor them the best I can by visiting them a few hours every year.
My dad used to drop me and my brother off at a Methodist church for Sunday school every week. I memorized Bible verses and made Popsicle-stick puppets of biblical figures. I liked it enough. I don’t remember my father actually ever stepping inside the church with us. I was too young to think this was odd, at least initially. Eventually I aged out of the Sunday school class—no ceremony, no acknowledgement of progress or advancement, no goodbyes—and was moved to a room on the second floor with a group of older kids. For some reason, no one discussed religion. No one talked about the Bible, or God, or Jesus, the sorts of topics you’d think people were supposed to talk about in church. I hated being there, sitting in the metal folding chair in a circle of kids I didn’t know. I didn’t see the point. I told my dad I wanted to quit. He never took us back.
My dad began to ask me questions. “Do you believe in God?” If I said yes, he would ask why. Of course, when a non-believing parent asks a child these sorts of questions, the chance of the child’s belief in God surviving is not good. Why he made the effort to take me and my brother to Sunday school every week only to evangelize us into his atheistic beliefs makes no sense to me. By the time I was a teenager, I had absorbed my Dad’s atheism, but that left me with nothing to believe in.
The Relationship Between Thoughts and Feelings
To counteract a life-long, low-grade depression stemming from a belief in nothing, I did what I’ve always done when I struggled with a problem—look for the answer in a book. I went to the self-help and psychology aisle of my local bookstore and found one that was extremely helpful: You Can Be Happy No Matter What: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective, by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.
Dr. Carlson explains that happiness does not depend on resolving problems beyond our control. There are five principles we need to understand—Thoughts, Moods, Separate Realities, Feelings, and the Present Moment—to help us navigate the challenges of life. The most important principle is the relationship between thoughts and feelings:
Every negative (and positive) feeling is a direct result of thought. It’s impossible to have jealous feelings without jealous thoughts, to have sad feelings without first having sad thoughts, to feel angry without having angry thoughts. And it’s impossible to be depressed without having depressing thoughts. This seems obvious, but if it were better understood, we would all be happier and live in a happier world!You Can Be Happy No Matter What: Five Principles for Keeping Life in Perspective, by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.
Another book I found helpful was The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, by the Dali Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. This book explores ancient Buddhist teachings and psychological principles to “illustrate how to ride through life’s obstacles on a deep and abiding source of inner peace.”
As an atheist, I was intrigued by Buddhism, a 2500-year-old religion without a god, which addresses the problem of unhappiness head-on, requiring no impossible leaps of faith the way Christianity seemed to require. To overcome suffering, one must first understand the nature of suffering—the Four Noble Truths—and then follow the Eightfold Path, which is basically an eight-step recovery program to overcome negative mental states. Sounds simple enough, right?
The quest for inner peace is one of the most ancient endeavors of humankind.Thomas Cleary, from his introduction to the Dhammapada
Here’s a brief outline of The Four Noble Truths, and The Eightfold Path (from A Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard).
- The Noble Truth of Suffering: Birth; Decay; Death; Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief and Despair; and not getting what one desires. These are the Five Aggregates of Existence.
- The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering: Craving
- The Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering: Detachment
- The Noble Truth of the Path that Leads to the Extinction of Suffering: The Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path
- Right Understanding (understand the Four Noble Truths)
- Right Mindedness (thoughts free from lust, ill-will, and cruelty)
- Right Speech (speak the truth; abstain from lying, gossip, harsh language, and vain talk)
- Right Action (abstain from killing, stealing, and unlawful sexual intercourse)
- Right Living (earn your livelihood by a right way of living)
- Right Effort (effort to avoid, to overcome, to develop, and to maintain)
- Right Attentiveness (live in contemplation of the Body, Feeling, the Mind, and Phenomena)
- Right Concentration (fixation of the mind to a single object)
Unhappiness is a negative mental state that begins in the mind as thought. To root out unhappiness, one must recognize unhappiness (or suffering) is caused by craving and attachment. To overcome this attachment, one must follow the Eightfold Path: understand the unsatisfactory nature of existence, live a moral life, and discipline the mind.
“He reviled me; he injured me; he defeated me; he deprived me.” In those who harbor such grudges, hatred never ceases.The Dhammapada: Sayings of Buddha
Below is a list of other books about Buddhism I found helpful (I bought these years ago, so some of them may be out of print, or replaced with an updated edition).
- An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, by D.T. Suzuki
- The Manual of Zen Buddhism, by D.T. Suzuki
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, by Shunryu Suzuki
- Dhammapada: The Sayings of Buddha, Translated by Thomas Cleary
- The Meditation Handbook: A Step-by-Step Manual for Buddhist Meditation, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
- The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment, by Philip Kapleau
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Hyperion Books, NY, 1994)
My interest in Buddhism didn’t go beyond books until my early 30s when I left the Air Force and moved to San Diego with my husband. A Buddhist nun teaching a meditation class began to explain how Buddhism had helped her—then broke down in tears as she recalled the trauma that led her to Buddhism. I didn’t pursue Buddhism any further, not because of the seeming failure of the Buddhist nun to manage her unhappiness, but as a stay-at-home mom with a baby and a toddler, I didn’t think anyone would appreciate a crying baby and a toddler running around during the meditation session.
I meditated on my own. Breathing meditations. Emptying my mind. Staying in the moment. I understand the concept. Emotions arise from thoughts. Anger from angry thoughts. Unhappiness from unhappy thoughts. In order to manage negative feelings, one needs to discipline the mind.
It kind of worked—for a minute, here and there if I concentrated hard enough. It turns out emptying the mind is extremely difficult. When I ended the meditation, the negative thoughts rushed back in like opening a window during a hurricane.
Fast forward fifteen years.
America’s (nominally Christian) moral framework I took for granted growing up during the 80s seems to be fragmenting. In 2016, California legalized recreational marijuana. Billboards advertising cannabis went up everywhere. Young men stood at street corners and intersections, holding signs for pot shops. By this time, my boys were 14 and 11. They could see the billboards and signs whenever they looked out the car window. Ads for cannabis played on the radio. I was worried marijuana would become the new alcohol, the trendy social lubricant my kids would be pressured into using by their peers.
Legal marijuana wasn’t the only thing in 2016 that bothered me. The rise of incivility after Trump was elected was astonishing. Not just the boorish, narcissistic, immature behavior of our 45th President and Commander-in-Chief, but also the anger and intolerance of the ideological left, whom I used to believe were more open-minded, thoughtful, and compassionate than right-wing hardliners. I’ve always been aware of angry right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh and had no difficulty ignoring them. It was the rise of the angry, intolerant left that utterly baffled me, and still does to this day.
I completely lost my faith in atheism when Richard Dawkins, an atheist, British evolutionary biologist, and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, was effectively excommunicated from the American Humanist Association in 2021 for expressing one too many politically incorrect opinions about the subjective nature of transgenderism.
Regrettably, Richard Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values. His latest statement implies that the identities of transgender individuals are fraudulent, while also simultaneously attacking Black identity as one that can be assumed when convenient. His subsequent attempts at clarification are inadequate and convey neither sensitivity nor sincerity.
Consequently, the AHA Board has concluded that Richard Dawkins is no longer deserving of being honored by the AHA, and has voted to withdraw, effective immediately, the 1996 Humanist of the Year award.American Humanist Association Board Statement Withdrawing Honor from Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins has insulted Christians and Muslims without retribution for decades (if you’re religious, try reading his book The God Delusion without your blood pressure going up). Apparently, a new dogma is replacing Judeo-Christian morality that no one—including atheists like Dawkins—is allowed to question.
Prior to 2016, I believed that not believing in God was the most rational belief one can hold. I could not understand why everyone was acting so irrationally. I became convinced America is losing its moral compass and worried about my boys navigating the adult world without a moral framework to believe in.
In 2018, I accepted a friend’s invitation to her son’s baptism and began attending church with my younger son (my older son was in high school by this time and wanted nothing to do with church). I didn’t think dropping my kid off at Sunday school once a week the way my dad did would be enough. I decided if I’m going to do this, I needed to go all-in and do it right.
In addition to attending church and listening to the weekly sermons, I participated in a weekly Bible study with books and lesson plans and homework, and a weekly evening “community group” meet-up, which, though I’ve never been in therapy, feels like a therapy session you attend with other Christians to help you deal with the slings and arrows of life.
How in the world do you go from being an atheist to being a Christian?
Start with an open mind.
I have an undergraduate degree in physics. I’m comfortable assuming theoretical possibilities to fill in a knowledge gap until a theory can be proved. For example, the mathematics of String Theory (which I don’t even pretend to understand) predict the existence of 11 dimensions (10 + time). We exist in three physical dimensions. Can you comprehend ten dimensions? A tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of a cube. Even though it’s only one dimension more than three, I can’t grasp what it’s supposed to look like. I can’t comprehend anything beyond three-dimensional space, let alone ten. The same with whatever it is that initiated the Big Bang and created the universe out of nothing. Christians call this incomprehensibility God.
But God doesn’t exist.
You cannot prove that God—an invisible incomprehensibility beyond time and space responsible for creating the universe—exists or doesn’t exist. But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that God does not exist. Here are some problems with this.
1. Gods represent ideas, and ideas exist, even though they’re not visible, or have any physical presence in the world.
Ideas exist in our minds as thought, and what we think has a profound effect on how we act in the world. Once I began listening to the sermons, I realized there is a coherent philosophy of life undergirding the Christian worldview. It’s ancient wisdom and psychology, about choices and consequences, morality and meaning, forgiveness and redemption, and aligning yourself with God (summum bonum–the highest, or ultimate good). If you throw out God, you end up throwing out the entire the moral and metaphysical framework God represents.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.Behave Like a Christian – Romans 12:9-18 NKJV
2. The definition of “believe” is misunderstood.
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The meaning of the word “believe” is two thousand years removed from the original Greek “pistis” which means “trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment.” The early Christians didn’t expect you to “believe” the way we believe 2 + 2 = 4. What they meant was to commit to Christ, and become a follower of “The Way.”
According to Karen Armstrong in The Case for God:
When the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin by Saint Jerome (c. 342-420), pistis became fides (“loyalty”). Fides had no verbal form, so for pisteuo, Jerome used the Latin verb credo, a word that derived from cor do, “I give my heart.” He did not think of using opinor (“I hold an opinion). When the Bible was translated into English, credo and pisteuo became “I believe” in the King James version (1611). But the word “belief” has since changed its meaning. In Middle English, bileven meant “to prize; to value; to hold dear.” It was related to the German belieben (“to love”), liege (“beloved”), and the latin libido. So “belief” originally meant “loyalty to a person to whom one is bound in promise or duty.” … During the late seventeenth century, however, as our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, the word “belief” started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical—and often dubious—proposition.(pp. 87-88)
3. The way I see it, God does in fact exist.
Think about it this way: if God—that is, something akin to a supreme divine consciousness with the power to intervene in human affairs—does not exist, then where did the Ten Commandments (simplified in the New Testament as “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself”) come from?
In the Old Testament, whenever the people of Israel abandon God and worship other gods (which represent different worldviews and moral frameworks), they become corrupt (Judges 2, for example), vulnerable to foreign invaders, and eventually are hit with the consequences—the wrath of God.
Do you believe in peace on Earth? That’s what happens when we love one another and align our lives with the highest, ultimate good. The consequences of abandoning Judeo-Christian ethics are real whether you believe God exists or not.
4. Understanding Buddhism as a Gateway to Understanding Christianity
Because of my understanding of Buddhism, I “got” Christianity right away. The Buddhist practice of disciplining the mind through meditation is similar to the Christian practice of filling one’s thoughts with Christ through prayer, worship, and reading the Bible. The Third Noble Truth of the Extinction of Suffering is basically the Tenth Commandment: Do not covet. Freeing your thoughts of ill will and cruelty is akin to conforming to Christ. The Buddhist Eightfold Path is similar to The Way, which is what the ancient Christians called their faith.
Does that mean you now believe Earth was created in literally six days?
No. Nor do I have to.
Do believe Jesus rose from the dead?
The resurrection of Christ is a missing-body murder mystery—where did the body go? I believe something super weird and miraculous happened, fulfilling an ancient prophesy written in the Book of Isaiah approximately 700 years B.C. I believe all the eyewitness accounts in the New Testament are truthful and sincere. My understanding is that all but one of the Twelve Apostles were martyred for their faith. If they were lying, I believe they would have buckled and recanted their story in fear for their lives the way Peter denied Jesus three times in Luke 22:54-62.
In any case, I’m a speculative fiction writer. I spend three hours every weekday morning immersing myself in a fictional world with imaginary people when I’m writing my novel. I’m perfectly comfortable accepting speculative elements of a story to understand a spiritual, psychological, or existential truth. You can’t have a metaphor without the literal.
Do you believe in heaven and hell?
According to the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, heaven and hell are states of being (also described as states of the soul) that begin here in this life and continue in the next. Heaven is acceptance of God and hell is rejection of God. If you are conforming to Christ, then heaven is within you.
Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons humans, as a place where humans, by misusing their free will, choose to imprison themselves…An excerpt from The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity, by Timothy Ware, p.255
(Evangelical Christendom steps in to politely interject):
Heaven and hell are physical places. Jesus taught that there were. The new heavens and the new earth is physical. Hell that is described as a fiery furnace, the lake of fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, separation from God, is a physical place. It is a real literal place for those who are unbelievers.
The Orthodox Church does not reject this depiction of hell, but they prefer the other explanation. For more information about the Orthodox position on heaven and hell, this website from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America may be helpful.
The fragmentation of Christianity after the Great Schism of 1054, followed by the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517, fracturing Western Christianity into tens of thousands of different denominations with differing theological opinions, is confusing to non-Christians and makes Christianity look like a fictional construct. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the oldest Church in Christendom, and the original Christian Church as described in the New Testament. I’m impressed by their theological scholarship and their knowledge of the history of Christianity. I find Orthodox theology (the Church is a hospital for the soul, for example) far more appealing and easier to explain than Western Christianity’s threat of “going to hell” for those who don’t “believe.”
Whatever it is that caused my depression to cease, whether it’s the power of the Holy Spirit, or an ancient and profound brain hack that arose from the collective wisdom of people who experienced and made sense of an inconceivable level of suffering—it’s working, far better than Buddhist meditation, which didn’t work particularly well for me. My depression is essentially gone.
As for my journey to Orthodox Christianity, I’m not quite there yet. I began attending services at a local Orthodox church–one Sunday a month, and Saturday evening Vespers the remaining weeks. I’d like to convert to Orthodoxy someday, but my son is happy with the church we’re at, so I’m not leaving anytime soon.
Evangelical: Are you really saved?
In Greek, “to save” also means “to heal.” Since no one is perfect, no one is completely healed. Spiritual healing is a lifetime process of sanctification. But if you’re in doubt and need supernatural proof authenticating my claim that I’m now a Christian, here’s my dream I jotted down after waking up. God often speaks to people in dreams.
I was sitting at a table in a corner somewhere, windows, a couple of people, maybe we were eating, can’t remember, don’t know why dreams dissipate so fast. Then after the others left, one of them pulled me aside and asked me to help her do something. She wanted to injure a mare so she could win a race. “I’m not doing that,” I said, shaking my head. She had brown hair that stopped at her shoulders, and an earnest expression on her face. She was insistent, asked me several times, and utterly oblivious to the notion that what she was suggesting was profoundly unethical. I had a feeling of moral certitude, I was baffled she thought it was perfectly okay to do injure a competitor’s horse to win a race. Finally I said, “I’m a follower of Jesus Christ,” and for some reason that declaration seemed to have worked and she finally quit asking.“I declared I was a follower of Jesus Christ in a dream.” Wednesday, January 19, 2022
If you’re interested in learning more about Orthodox Christianity, here are a few resources that may be helpful.
- The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity, by Timothy Ware
- Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Finding the Way to Christ in a Complicated Religious Landscape, by Andrew Stephen Damick
- Search The Scriptures (An Orthodox Bible study by Dr. Jeannie Constantinou)
Christendom: May God bless you. And Godspeed to you.