Alan Diehl didn’t wake up one day and decide he no longer believed in God. There was no great plan to disappoint his parents and shock his congregation by renouncing the religion in which they were all so entrenched.
“To me, it was internal inconsistencies, the doctrine we followed,” said Diehl, 36, of Cedar Rapids, a former pastor in the Fundamental Baptist Church. “These questions just kept popping up.”
Diehl is a founding member the Humanists of Linn County and represents that organization on the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County. The Humanist organization is made up of those with nontheistic views — atheists, agnostics, secularists — who hold a comprehensive world view and a set of ethical values.
While Diehl now is active in the atheist/Humanist community, his religious path was laid out for him early. His parents took part in “the Jesus Movement” in the late 1970s, leaving the Catholic Church in 1980 and joining a Fundamental Baptist congregation just a few months before their son, Alan, was born.
At a church conference in Indiana, at the age of 14, Diehl “answered the call” to dedicate his life to Christ and become a Baptist minister. After high school, he received his degree in theology from a small, non-accredited college in Elgin, Ill., where he met his future wife. They got married and had their first child when Diehl accepted a call to be an associate pastor in Plattsmouth, Neb.
It was there, he said, that the questions really started coming. In particular, he said, was the age at which a child becomes accountable to God and when that child would be given a place in heaven. There was no clear answer, and families were left to determine on their own “when they would push their child to accept Christ.”
“It was upsetting to me that we would leave to chance when a child is accountable to God,” Diehl said. “So a parent could have a child who hadn’t yet accepted Christ, be struck by a car and killed, and then that parent is worried that their child is burning in hell.”
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“Here I was in a position of authority, meant to be answering these questions, and I had questions myself,” Diehl said. “I was at a crossroads.”
He turned to books written by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — “I’d hide these books inside another book while reading them so I didn’t get caught,” he said — and started questioning himself.
“I started to wonder, ‘Am I being authentic? Am I being real,’” he said. “I remember the senior pastor preaching about being an authentic Christian, and if you’re not, you should get out. I know he wasn’t talking directly to me, but it really hit home.”
The next day he told his senior pastor he was having a crisis of faith. While that was a difficult conversation, he said, it paled to having to tell his father.
“To say you have questions about your faith and you really need to re-evaluate it, that’s a really difficult thing,” he said. “When you’re in that world, it’s as real as real can be. I had some very, very tense conversations with my father.”
Diehl and his family moved back to Cedar Rapids in 2008 where, he said, he started “this crazy de-evolution of my life.”
“I had never drank, I never smoked, or listened to rock music,” he said. “I wanted to try all those things just because I could. I moved back and thought, ‘You know, I’m kind of free now.’”
At the time, Diehl still held onto some of his religious beliefs, but in spring 2009, he said, it was the beginning of the end of his religious affiliation.
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“I had gone to an Easter service and it was all about the resurrection,” he said. “I found myself thinking, ‘What evidence is there, really, that this really happened?’ Then it struck me. I didn’t think we should go to church anymore.”
It’s been seven years since he’s been to church, or believed in God or any higher being. He doesn’t judge others on their beliefs or lack thereof — many of his friends, he said, are very religious.
“I never really had that bitterness toward the religious community,” he said, something that makes working with the Inter-Religious Council seem more natural. It’s all part of who we are as Humanists.
“Part of being good without God is partnering with people you don’t necessarily agree with.”