Anderson was the son of committed Christians who were part of a small but tight-knit church in an area largely devoid of Christians. He said he derived his identity and sense of value from his family and church community, but even so his doubts about Christianity started early.
"Even as a little kid, I had a melancholy, contemplative personality," he began. "I brooded a lot. I wasalways looking at the underside of things, not taking anything at face value, always questioning, always probing one level deeper. I've never been able to totally shake that."
I smiled. I've often been accused of asking too many questions myself. "When did you become a Christian?" I said.
"I made a profession of faith at a summer camp when I was eleven, but I felt unclean afterwards. I was supposed to have committed my life to Jesus, but I wasn't even sure there was a Jesus. I felt deceptive."
"Did you mention your feelings to anyone?"
"I talked with a minister, but he didn't seem to understand," he said. "I just kind of swallowed it. But of course I still prayed for things. I remember praying and praying that I'd get a bike and I
never got one. That made me feel like God wasn't connected to me. I thought, 'Let's get real. When you pray, there's nothing up there but blue sky."'
I asked if he only felt doubt or whether there were eras when his faith flourished.
"Sometimes I would really sense God's presence," he told me. "I would ride home from school in a snowstorm at twilight, singing hymns and feeling I was in God's hands. But much of the time, I didn't believe in him at least, not like my church peers did."
"Were you afraid they might find out?"
"Absolutely, because I had an enormous need to be loved and accepted and have status in that believing community. I was scared that they'd think I was bad, they'd be angry, they'd think my parents were spiritual failures. I was afraid my parents would be disappointed or ashamed." Obviously, parents can play a significant role in shaping a child's view of God. In fact, one study showed that most of history's most famous atheists-including Bertrand Russell, John Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, and Karl Marx-had a strained relationship with their father or their dad died early or abandoned them at a young age, thus creating difficulty in them believing in a heavenly Father.6 So I decided to probe in this area with Anderson.
"Tell me a little about your parents," I said a bit tentatively, hoping I wasn't getting too personal.
Anderson removed his glasses and laid them on the Bible that sat open in front of him. "In retrospect," he said, "I guess some of my doubts might have stemmed from the parenting style of my mother. She loved me more than life but had no emotional tools to show it. Her way of getting you to improve was to show what you did wrong. She was taught that mothers aren't supposed to show physical affection to sons or it might make them homosexual, and that you don't affirm people because that could give them a big head."
"Did that color your view of God?"
"As you know, people often define God as a parent image. And for good reason-the Bible calls him a father and even a mother sometimes. So part of the distance I felt from God might have been the distance I felt from my mother. On the other hand, my father was an outgoing, affectionate, affirming person, but I think there's something in our fallen nature that hears the bad news come through the good news."
"And so what was the basic Christian message that you perceived in your early years?" I asked.
"It was, 'If you don't meet this standard, you're lost but nobody can meet this standard, especially you.' As a result, the closer I would get to God-when I'd start believing and get serious about connecting with him the more hopeless I felt because I couldn't meet his expectations. Then I would think, 'This is sick! Why would I believe in something that's going to condemn me no matter what I do? Surely, if there's a God, he couldn't be like that. Some monster invented this."'
"Did you think you'd outgrow this?"
"I hoped this was part of being a kid. But at college, the doubts moved from the emotional to the intellectual. I ran into questions about the Bible, and I wondered why there's so much suffering in the world."
He smiled as he recalled a story. "I remember one day a student raised some huge biblical dilemma. The teacher couldn't answer it. Finally, after stumbling around for a while, the teacher said, 'When all the facts are in, we'll see it underscores the credibility of the Bible."
Anderson let out a laugh. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, no! This guy's hoping it's true, too! If you scratch under the surface, he's as scared as I am!"'
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