Growing up in the Reform tradition, I turned eighteen and joined my peers in classes at the Minister’s house after church on Sundays. It was a privilege and a pleasant time, with coffee and cake and light discussion of the Nicene Creed. We were being prepared to stand before the church and recite the Profession of Faith, a personal statement of commitment, like a marriage. We would take our place as adult members of the church, submitting to its authority. I became more anxious as the classes neared their end. I asked the Minister for some personal time, but I could not frame my questions and he could not help. I dropped out. I lost my place among the people.
From a distance of decades, it seems no surprise now that I dropped out. Calvinism is rooted in the Reformation, the Protestant break from the Catholic church. Martin Luther taught that salvation is achieved not through the authority of the church but as a free gift through the grace of God. Sounds nice, but Calvinism is a stern theology. Its main five points can be represented by the acronym TULIP, the Dutch flower. “T” stands for “Total depravity,” the idea of original sin. Put simply, man is born in sin and must be saved. “U” is for “Unconditional election”, the God has already picked those who will be saved, while the rest are bound for hell. Need I go on? (Aside, the Reformed tradition is the one in which Donald Trump claims membership. His pastor has declared him inactive.)
On my own, spiritually, I learned different world views and experienced new insights. Today I call myself a happy atheist — happy not to worry about the fate my soul, happy to live by a practical morality of love and service to others, happy to find meaning in the small stories of life.
A few months ago I ran into a boyhood friend, one who always seemed more certain of his theology. Today he makes a living researching religion. I told him I am an atheist. He made a friendly joke about him not having enough faith to be one. I was impressed by the consistency of his religious belief over the years, but curious if anything had changed in his thinking over the years. He said his faith is less fearful, more embodied. I believe him. My atheist worldview disembodies me to some extent. I do not have a soul located in my body. I do not belong to a separate people, a religious tribe. I am estranged from a community of faith. I can live with that.