Burn

This is the story of my “deconversion”, where I attempt to explain my decision to leave Christianity fully, but concisely. The end (I’ll use that song title for another post, I’m sure) of my faith, as with most people who have left, was gradual. I shared an extremely short version with Oliver Morrison, the author of this story for our local newspaper (I’m in the photograph in the dark red shirt), though the story didn’t make the article (I’m somewhat glad, because I glossed over what I consider to be very important bits). Nevertheless, I feel the need to tell it.

My journey, as ever, continues, and as such, I may revise this post to reflect additional changes to my worldview or poor choices of wording that inaccurately portray what I mean.

The Story

When I went off to college, I had learned enough to know that life, in general, was a journey of sorts, and that I would be finding my own way and building an identity of my own apart from my parents: “finding my name“, as it were. Many leave the faith in college, though I was not one of them. I steadfastly persisted for an additional seven or so years after graduation.

After a shake-up at my home church at the time (summer 2011, I believe), I began to wonder why I went to church. What kept me going, week after week? The mantra I had been taught from birth was Hebrews 10:25: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…but exhorting one another…” This was interpreted to mean that weekly church attendance, while not compulsory, was extremely important for the health of one’s spiritual life.

Okay, fine. So I tried out a few other churches at the time, but all I heard from the pulpit was the same tired stories I had heard for the previous 30 years, the same lines about the importance of obedience to God, evangelism, the importance of Jesus and His sacrifice on The Cross1 and resurrection, not having sex outside of marriage (huge deal for evangelical Christians, probably other brands as well), yada yada yada2.

But exhortation? Sure, there was a bit of that from the pulpit, but little to none of that from the others from whom I expected exhortation. Here’s my church journey (I’m leaving out the first three churches I attended as they play little role in this particular story):

1. The congregation consisted of middle-aged couples and young couples with children, deeply invested in taking care of their own families and maintaining connections with the families of their children’s friends and little time for a single guy who, despite having attended for 2+ years and being on stage or on the technical team, was not once invited even to lunch, much less asked to join a Bible study (okay, I may have a bit of bitterness left over from that one).
2. The congregation consisted of 3000+ people (a megachurch for the middle of Kansas) and it was easy and tempting to lose myself in the crowd. Though I knew people there, they were involved in their own cliques already, and I was a constant outsider.
3. Pretty much the same as #2, just a bit smaller (1200 or so).
4. I finally settled on “Bedside Baptist”.

Staying at home, thoroughly enjoying an extra hour or five of sleep on Sunday mornings, I began to wonder what else I got from the church. A selfish thought, I believed at the time, but something that I also believed I deserved an answer to. If I put in my time and some money, and got nothing (no friendships, no new information, insights or understanding, no astonishing revelations, no satisfaction), what was the point? I’ll admit to not putting in a lot of effort at #2 and #3 after the bad experiences at #1, but still.

In growing doubt, I had heard something similar to the following from Os Guinness (which is itself probably taken from John Stuart Mill):

We ourselves are called in question if we have no answer to doubt. If we constantly doubt what we believe and always believe-yet-doubt, we will be in danger of undermining our personal integrity, if not our stability. But if ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger still. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply.

I was finding it difficult to “answer” these doubts—they seemed to be justified (using the words of Guinness). Niggling things that I had shoved to the background, ideas I had suppressed before but could no longer ignore. Foremost among them was communication with God, or, rather, the lack thereof. Not for lack of trying, I could not think of a single time in which I had felt God “speak to me” in some way, shape, or form. In the Bible studies I had taken part in, every other person would relate one story or another in which they had “seen God work in their lives” or “heard God’s voice” telling them to take a particular path.

When, at one of these studies, each person was asked to tell such a story, I confessed that I had nothing remotely like their stories. Afterward, I was praised by my peers for persevering in the faith despite my lack of personal experience. But if God didn’t speak to me, was he really speaking to these others, or was I specially selected by God (predestined, as it were) to not have any sense of divine presence? This event, more than any other, sticks in my mind as the likely seed of my doubt.

There are far more “mundanearguments that began to crop up, things I never thought about twice before. But this seemed to be mounting evidence that I had been believing what was not worth believing.

Another piece of the puzzle that I found didn’t fit quite right was the insidious, pervasive, and subconscious use of fear throughout Christianity. Guilt is a more important part of some sects/franchises than others, and I freely admit to feeling a lot of it, though it was, of course, “a sign of God working in my life” before. I felt guilty sometimes for the most inane and inconsequential things, even after adjusting for my wonky brain chemistry.

The double whammy of guilt and fear of hell—though “eternal security” was taught in the churches I went to, guilt due to sin and fear of one’s salvation somehow not being quite real was constant—was a powerful force. “What if I’m not really saved?” “I’m doing all these things for God, but if I wind up in hell…” “What if I make a mistake in God’s eyes?” Despite this, I found no evidence, even anecdotal, that anyone ever had been struck dead by God for a sin, save in the Bible itself, which I was increasingly wary of trusting.

My relationship with God had been tenuous at best, demanding of a great deal of my time and energy with no apparent return. As I said before, I saw this as a selfish thought, but if I got nothing for my time and energy, I would reap the same benefits without that time and energy. What would I be missing?

My continuing attendance at “Bedside Baptist” corresponded to my reading significantly more about religion and non-religion in general. Apologetics books like Strobel’s “The Case for Christ” wound up on my nightstand at the same time as I began to read blogs about life without faith. The arguments for religion I soon found insubstantial, and not nearly as convincing as they used to be, while the arguments against it made far more sense. I started to consider myself an agnostic and referred to myself as such online.

The only two arguments that still held sway for me were these: I was still struggling with my fear of death—if there was nothing “after”, what was/is the point of now?—and my continued awe at the beauty of the natural world—could it really have happened by chance?

I eventually found that, while I would (now) like to live indefinitely out of sheer curiosity, even if I survive (as is likely) just a few short decades (~ down, hopefully several more healthy ones to go), my desire for “treasure”, even when I was a Christian, was never heavenly in nature. That’s another area in which I felt deep guilt for “falling short of the glory of God”. I wanted (still do) to make an impact here on this little $$5.972\ 19\times10^{24}\ \rm{kg}$$ blue marble, whether that’s through having/adopting/mentoring a child or children, or if I can affect (or at least prompt) some change in government or society for the better.

Additionally, every Christian portrayal of heaven I had been exposed to seemed remarkably dull (and mostly without any basis in the Bible that I could see). Oh, it’s supposed to be unimaginably beautiful, all our tears will be wiped away, we’ll spend eternity praising God, meeting long lost loved ones, etc. That might be fine for the first hour or ten, but eternity? The response I got to this was that we, like God, would somehow be “outside of time”, which seems like quite the cop-out, and doesn’t answer the question either. What about the loved ones who didn’t “make the cut”, who weren’t Christians (or who didn’t subscribe to whichever version of Christianity—or whichever other religion—was the “right” one)? Would we mourn them? Would we peek over into the abyss and see the suffering of our friends? How would this be imminently joyful?

The idea of heaven? Treasures there? I found that I liked it less and less, and began to find some small measure of comfort in rotting in a box in the ground (or cremation—it’s cheaper; or this, which seems ecologically friendlier). I return to the state I had before I was born: nonexistence.

The beauty of the natural world was a hurdle I had already halfway cleared. I had the basic understanding of astrophysics and cosmology to comprehend the universe as $$13.798\pm0.037\times10^9\ yrs$$ old, for its formation and evolution to progress pretty much the way scientists said it did.

My hangup was the evolution and origin of life. This, it turns out, was based on the false portrayal of biological evolution that I had been taught (primarily because the instruction was done more at church than at school). Oh, “we” made a few concessions to science, granting speciation, natural selection, genetic drift, and a few other minor points, but macroevolution and abiogenesis were far too radical (and, it was taught, so unlikely as to be impossible). Once I understood abiogenesis (or, rather, had an actual scientist explain some of the theoretical chemistry) and phylogenetics, the reasons behind the scientific consensus became clear. This was not and is not some conspiracy for man to eliminate the need for God, it’s the natural, logical conclusion of the totality of the evidence.

Science, including modern evolutionary biology and modern physical cosmology, answer, or try to answer, all questions in their purview. Theology looks at the universe, throws up its hands, and says, “God did it!” (then sticks its fingers in its ears and goes “lalalalala” in the face of science). I won’t explain these answers here (there are plenty of resources available; this post isn’t about that). The point is that the science I was taught in church was very, very wrong.

The beauty of the planet we live on and the universe we inhabit? Entirely natural, explained extremely well by the big bang, evolution, etc. And I don’t find it less wondrous for that—in fact, it’s even more amazing!

With what I found to be the only compelling reasons to continue to believe gone, I realized I was still standing. And with no compelling reason to believe, the compelling reasons against non-belief vanished as well. After this, the step from “agnostic” to “atheist” was an easy one to take. I just changed the label which indicates my religious non-affiliation.

It took 3+ years for me to “leave” Christianity. The worldview was a comfort. A security blanket. Crutches. For me. I want to emphasize that bit. For some, religion is far more integral and important to their lives and/or psychological (or physical) well-being. It can be a valuable part of one’s identity, though it has ceased to be a part of my own. The community was easier for me to leave because of how little I was experiencing; for most it’s a lot more difficult, but I have found communities outside of religion that fill my need for interaction.

There are those that may claim my salvation so many years ago was never real, but I devoted all I had to God for more than two decades. Despite the nearly constant guilt and despair that I felt, I believed the promises of pastors and friends about the abundant joy awaiting me in the kingdom, if not in this life, then in the one to come. I prayed several times daily, I studied the Bible, I led Bible studies, I made promises to evangelize at every opportunity, to “stay pure” until marriage, to devote 10 % of my income to the church, etc. I was pro-life (anti-abortion). I even voted Republican once (I’m sorry). I believed in angels and demons, that there was a war going on between them all around us (Frank Peretti was one of my favorite authors) and that our souls were the battleground. While I never personally supported a patriarchal system, it was held as an ideal (this is something I struggled with early on). I never wanted dozens of kids (two max, zero was fine). I didn’t even have an issue with same-sex marriage (though for quite some time I was, and I blame the church, wary of homosexuals themselves)—their happiness didn’t affect my own. I maintain that I was indeed a Christian, but am no longer.

The “final step” of leaving, that of telling others I had done so, has been and is the most difficult. The first to know was my girlfriend at the time (I called myself agnostic when we met, but this didn’t faze her either; she’s now my wife, and we’ve been happily married for  years), followed by my best friends (brothers who may not know I consider them as such). As of this writing, my parents don’t know, nor do many of my colleagues, nor most of my other friends.

In the midwest, smack dab in the center (okay, south and a bit east of center) of a very very red state (perhaps not quite the reddest of them, but darn close), saying that one is an “atheist” is as hard as saying one is a “democrat” or “liberal”. The bible-quoting masses look at you kinda funny and clutch their guns a little tighter when they hear any of those words.

Turns out there are stigmas against atheists throughout the country. If one is in politics, admitting atheism virtually guarantees losing an election. In a good chunk of the country, the second question one is asked when meeting new people is, “Where do you go to church?” Even online, atheists (mainly certain prominent figures) are excoriated by other atheists who think that their brand of atheism isn’t the right one, or their view even on a particular issue is wrong because of their atheism. Which sounds disturbingly like religion.

Now, from the outside looking in, I see the games that are played. I see the fine print. I never saw them as such: they were somewhere in the mix of confirmation bias and call-and-response rote memorization (to questions asked by theoretical non-believing friends). Faith is unfalsifiable, as are the consequences of having it or not. “Mysteries” that “the human mind simply cannot grasp”, which, rather than being rewarded for solving such a mystery, Christians are rewarded for embracing it unsolved (and sometimes criticised for trying to comprehend it).

1. Capitalization used for emphasis here. Doing so was important in the version of Christianity in which I was brought up as a sign of respect for “His” name. See here for some background.
2. From the Hebrew ידע. I just found this interesting, it actually has no real bearing on this post

English to Metric

Even the Philippines’ song didn’t get it quite right. I’ve been searching the ‘Net for exact conversion factors, and they’re harder to track down than I expected! They are in Wikipedia, but it’s hard to find the relevant ones in there. So! For my own reference and yours:

English to Metric Conversion Table

EnglishMetric
1 gallon [US, liquid]3.785411784 liters
1 gallon [UK, liquid]4.54609 liters
1 inch0.0254 meters
1 foot0.3048 meters
1 mile1609.344 meters
1 pound [avoirdupois]0.45359237 kilograms

Most other units are derived from these, so I’ll let you come up with the conversions on your own.