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7/31/05                                                                                       View Comments

A Lackluster Deconversion

sent in by Jeff

A Lackluster Faith Journey

The story of my conversion to, involvement with, and de-conversion from the
Christian faith is not nearly as dramatic, lengthy, or painful as it has
been for others.

Growing up, I had little exposure to Christianity except for irregular
visits to a Lutheran church for Sunday school and attending Catholic Mass
with my grandparents once in awhile. Neither of my parents was particularly
religious; my dad was and is a confirmed agnostic leaning heavily toward
atheism, though if you asked him today he'd probably identify strongly with
Buddhism. Interestingly enough, at one time my father had been pursuing a
career in Christian ministry. He'd been raised in a strict Lutheran home,
and due to some factors stemming from a dysfunctional family and his own
personal demons (homosexuality), he felt at the time that immersing himself
in faith was the answer. It wasn't. But this really isn't about his faith
journey, so it suffices to say that in terms of the father I know, he is
agnostic.

My mother, I found out much later, has a belief in God but is not religious.
Like many Americans, her faith is cultural and doesn't stem from any
dramatic spiritual epiphanies or adherence to biblical dogma. Out of her
three kids, only my brother and sister were ever confirmed in the Lutheran
church, and that was as much due to their desire to be confirmed as it was
due to my mom encouraging them to explore faith. In fact, I don't remember
even once discussing God with my mom until after I became a Christian.

Mostly, my early experiences in the church, though infrequent, were little
more than exercises in play acting and observation. I was a good boy who
knelt when I was supposed to kneel, prayed when I was supposed to pray, and
sang when I was supposed to sing. Very early I sensed a certain hypocrisy
about worship, even though my vocabulary didn't yet include that word. The
whole exercise was pretentious to me, especially since I knew some of the
people who were neighbors, and didn't at all behave according to the way the
pastor suggested. When I became a Christian, I looked back on those
occasions and rationalized it differently; these people weren't pretending,
they were being cleansed of their weekly misdeeds.

During my teen years, my official church attendance dropped to almost
nothing, though it could easily be argued I was closer to being a Christian
than I ever had been by the time I graduated. I had become something of a
closet Christian, as almost none of my friends were believers (that I knew
of). My teen years were filled with hormonal dramas and social awkwardness
just like many others, but I kind of also became something of a "bad boy,"
in rebellion against my father who expected me to achieve, and my mother &
stepfather who were too drunk to care. I had already built up a fair amount
of baggage from stealing my parents' car, to experimenting with drugs, to
sexual promiscuity, to drunk driving, to...well, you name it I probably did
it. Short of getting caught, that is. I was too much of a coward to really
push the envelope in any way that could be called daring. But I'm getting
off-topic here.

The point is that by the time I was in 11th grade, I had a lot to feel
guilty about. After quitting school in the last trimester of that school
year, I spent a summer re-evaluating where I wanted to be in life. Reality
came crashing in because as a result of quitting school, my dad had kicked
me out and I was forced to live with a friend of mine in an apartment. Of
course, he quickly taught me that there's no free lunch in life and I
learned that for a 17 year old, there aren't many opportunities to build the
kind of life I'd envisioned. Near the end of the summer, I called my mom
begging her to take me in. Over my senior year in H.S., I was able to
redeem myself to some extent and pulled out a decent graduation with honors.
But as I said I'd become something of a closet Christian.

At that time (during my senior year) there was a church nearby that
maintained a chapel that was open to the public 24/7. I had a little pocket
NT, and I'd go to this chapel alone to try and commune with God. Even though
I read the NT again and again, meditated in the chapel, and spent hours
praying trying to contact God, nothing ever happened. I was feeling this
overwhelming guilt for the things I'd done, but nothing would alleviate it.
My counselor had me almost convinced it was due to emotional stress, but
somewhere deep down I felt like I needed a savior. None ever came. It was
a fairly big let-down at the time, but I thought that the message was a good
one and that the problem must lie within me for failing to understand it and
receive the grace that was promised.

Yet I didn't have time to dwell on it too much. I joined the Army, and
about six months after graduation was deeply involved in learning how
spoiled I had been; basic training does that to you. For the next year and
a half, God wasn't something I gave any thought to. I went about the
business of being a soldier, whose off-duty concerns ran more along the
lines of where the next beer was coming from and how I was going to get laid
this weekend without paying for it.

It was when I was stationed in Germany that Christianity entered my life
again in a rather powerful way. Several people I had become close to turned
out to be Christian. A new roommate was a devout Christian, my then
girlfriend (whom I would later marry - and divorce) was a Christian, my
platoon sergeant was Christian, and a couple other people in my platoon
"came out" as Christians. Not that they were hiding it before, but it
became noticeable. Kind of like when you buy a car thinking it isn't that
popular, but then you start seeing them everywhere. But the most
significant influence at that time came in the form of a converted
ex-girlfriend.

While on leave, I ran into an old girlfriend. Our relationship had been
brief but intense, and I romanticized the intensity as something other than
it was. The reality was that the intensity stemmed from sex and drugs
rather than love, but that's not how I remembered it. Anyway, we went out
to dinner. It was during dinner that she told me she was born-again, and
described her life between graduation and her conversion along with how her
life had changed afterward. But her conversion, combined with my lingering
attraction to her, had the result that for the rest of my time on leave and
all the way back to Germany, I read the entire Bible cover to cover. I
wanted to know just what it was that was so special and what I had missed in
the past.

Well, I convinced myself that God was really trying to reach me. With all
the people in my life who it seemed had found the transcendent truth I
convinced myself I had been searching for, I started to believe that God
really did have a plan for me and that he wanted me to accept his grace.
Before leaving Germany, I married a woman whom I thought God wanted me to
marry - and whom I thought would help me not to be lonely the rest of my
life.

Following our successive discharges from the military, my wife and I moved
to Maryland where we became involved in a local Methodist church. During
many of the services, I would get extremely emotional, sometimes even
weeping as the pastor read various verses - especially those dealing with
the Passion Narrative. This further reinforced the conviction that God was
speaking to my heart, and set the stage for the events that followed.

It should also be noted that I had never really dealt with the issues from
my teenage years; the baggage was still there, only hidden. Plus, my wife
and I had some significant problems and had separated a few times. There
was adultery involved (hers, at that point), and serious disagreements over
parenting of not only our newborn child but her two boys from a previous
marriage. With my tendency to blame myself, I let the guilt for this pile
on, adding yet more reinforcement to the notion that I needed a savior.

At some point (exactly when escapes me, but it's not important), our church
hired a new youth pastor. Since he was the same age as my wife and I, we
easily identified with him and we became fast friends. His theology
contrasted that of the senior pastor, in that he was far more conservative
and seemed to be much more committed to the cause of Christ. Well, he found
out that I play guitar, and invited me to take part in a new contemporary
Christian band he wanted to put together, and to help him put together a
contemporary service for the younger members of the congregation. I was
extremely pleased and proud to be asked, and began to feel that God was
calling me to ministry. Music had always played a huge role in my life, and
I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to use it in this way.

The musicians we put together were simply amazing. We played and sang so
well together it was easy to think that God was guiding us. Many people
commented on how "the spirit was really moving" when we played. Indeed, I
often felt so moved by the emotional nature of the music that it welled up
in me and came out in my singing. The lead singer (I sang harmony as well
as played guitar) later told me that when she would falter she'd find
encouragement in my voice. Oddly, my ego wasn't inflated by any of this. I
felt that it wasn't me at all; it was God moving through me.

At the same time, I was becoming more and more conservative. As the youth
pastor and I spent more time together, I began to take on his theology.
Additionally, I jumped into the Bible with both feet, convinced that
everything in it was divine truth meant for all people in all ages. Yet
this was not enough. I purchased books on apologetics, becoming a fan of
such people as J.P. Holding (an Internet apologist), Josh McDowell, Lee
Strobel, and many others. I bought the biggest concordance I could find,
and devoured commentaries, biblical dictionaries - anything that seemed to
confirm the truth of the Bible. Through the Internet, I became a regular
visitor to places like www.carm.org, www.answersingenesis.com, and many
others. Not only that, but I came to the conclusion that every atheist or
non-believer was merely someone whose questions had not been answered, and
sought them out on message boards so that in keeping with 1 Peter 3:15 I
could "give an answer." Though I didn't understand it at the time, all of
those with whom I engaged in debate were far more logical, far more
reasonable, far better informed, and quite easily defeated every single
argument I ever advanced in favor of belief in God. I persisted in my faith,
but this was a tiny seed that would later bear fruit.

There were some darker elements to my faith as well. As the youth pastor,
myself, and a few others became further entrenched in what was becoming a
decidedly fundamentalist theology, we began to take issue with many of the
positions issuing from the pulpit of our church. You see, the senior pastor
had (and probably still has) a more liberal take on the Bible and theology.
This, in our estimation, was antithetical to what God had intended. So, we
set about trying to spread a more conservative doctrine.

Meanwhile, I had become aware of legislation pending in Montgomery County,
MD that would add "sexual orientation" to the Equal Opportunity code. That
is, employers and others would no longer be able to discriminate on that
basis. Well, a local conservative Christian group called Take Back Maryland
was gathering signatures for a petition designed to force a moratorium on
that issue, preventing it from being added. I became affiliated with that
group, and decided that I would take signatures from those in my church.
The youth pastor encouraged me to do this, being the first to add his
signature to the list that I was to gather. Other members of the band added
their signatures and encouragement as well. Though we didn't think of it
this way, we had become fundamentalist bigots, fostering hate for everyone
not like us.

Frankly, I don t know whatever happened with this legislation because I
stopped gathering signatures after a particularly interesting confrontation
with the senior pastor. While gathering signatures, the senior pastor's
wife rebuked me for going around the church gathering signatures without
speaking to the senior pastor first. So, I went to speak to him. We wound
up having a long discussion about whether I had the right to do that, and
about proofs in the Bible regarding homosexuality. This conversation
planted one of the seeds for my de-conversion, though I didn't realize it at
the time.

During the conversation, we of course discussed Romans 1:26-28. This is one
of the NT passages used along with the OT verses in Leviticus to show that
homosexuality is against God's will. The pastor made the comment that Paul
probably didn't know that one day his letters would become scripture. This
is a rather innocuous statement, to be sure, but one that got me thinking
again. Later as I recalled this statement, I started to think, would Paul
have known that his letters would someday be considered scripture? Would
any of the biblical authors have thought that? Even if God was using them
to author the Bible, there is never any mention of God doing dictation.
That being the case, is it possible that Paul - or any other biblical author
- could have been expressing his own prejudices while believing they were in
keeping with God's will? Basically, it re-opened the door in my mind to the
possibility that the Bible was an entirely man-made book; a concept that had
become buried as I had dug deeper into fundamentalism. However, as I
mentioned I didn't yet realize this and left the pastor's office still
convinced of the righteousness of my position, even though I did stop
gathering signatures for the petition at his request.

Shortly after, there was a division in the church caused in part by the
actions of those of us adhering to fundamentalist doctrine. The youth
pastor was fired - though he says he quit - after he scolded the entire
congregation one Sunday from the pulpit. He had told me of his plan, which
was to denounce the senior pastor, his predecessor, and the congregation for
turning to liberalism and forgetting that tolerance does not mean tolerating
those who aren't Christian or those who flout God's laws. Surprisingly (or
perhaps not surprisingly) there were more than a few people who agreed with
him, including me at the time. We left the church.

Later, the youth minister and a group of fellow ordained friends founded a
new, non-denominational church in PA. This church was too far away for us to
attend regularly, although I did make guest appearances with their
contemporary band. He even invited me to join and become one of the
"elders" of his new church, but my wife and I didn't want to move at that
time, so we turned him down. In the meantime I looked for another local
church and was lucky enough to get hired on as a permanent member of the
staff as the Praise Leader for another Methodist church. I was responsible
for leading the contemporary service, which consisted mostly of putting a
band together and selecting music that would match the lesson being taught.
It was during this time that the statement I mentioned above started to bug
me. Also, this church had a female pastor - something I did not agree with
at the time. I thought part of my mission there was to change things.

Long story short, I failed in each and every way at that church, and wound
up being summarily dismissed because of disagreements with the female pastor
and failure to properly grow the contemporary service. There were some
personal factors that contributed, such as my full-time job, persistent
issues at home (including my wife's non-attendance at any of the services,
which hurt me deeply), and simple exhaustion, but mostly it was theology.

About four months after being dismissed, I traveled to Biloxi, MS to be
trained in networking in connection with my new position as a member of the
Air National Guard. While I was there, I began to fall away from the faith.
I decided to test my long-held belief that the Bible, if it is the Word of
God, should stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny. So I began to study.
Really study. When I wasn't working out or in training through the week, I
was into the Bible, my concordance, commentaries, and online, checking
reference after reference, reading scientific journals, comparing
apologetics to scholarship, and began to recognize that my faith was built
on what amounts to a house of cards. I was extremely fair, I think, in that
I looked at both sides of the debate equally. In the end, having a greater
understanding of historical context, ancient literature, logic, evidence,
and other topics I came to the conclusion that very little of the Bible was
actually worth emulating. That being the case, the God of the Bible was
placed into the category of those things worth having doubts about. I came
to think, much as deists do, that if God exists, he must necessarily be
above all the human frailties attributed to His personality in the Bible,
and that He is basically an unknown quantity that has no practical influence
in this world. To my mind, this was a much bigger God than that offered by
Christians.

I stayed roughly agnostic for awhile, but eventually came to the conclusion
that I must be, by definition, an atheist. I do not believe God can be
proven nor disproven, and I believe exercises that attempt to do either make
for interesting but ultimately futile philosophical dialogues. I guess that
makes me technically agnostic, but leaning toward atheism. I do believe
that the Bible is the work of man, and that if God had anything to do with
its inspiration, it would have to be more like the inspiration attributed to
the Muses of ancient Greece rather than divine dictation. I now realize -
as all of us do, really - the inherent superiority of evidence over faith in
terms of describing the universe we live in. I also feel that at this stage
in human history, religion has outlived its usefulness and has become
dangerous. Today, religious extremists (among whom I might have counted
myself, had my life not followed the path it did) seek to impose their
version of God's Truth on us all. From Islamists seeking nothing less than
the overthrow of Judeo-Christian and secular nations around the world, to
politically-motivated Evangelicals halting stem cell research and doing
nothing of substance to halt the spread of AIDS, or trying to shoehorn
creationism into the science classroom, religion as we have known it no
longer contributes to humanity as a whole.

I have no problem with those who find comfort in the idea of heaven, or that
God gives them hope for more in the afterlife, so long as they continue to
interact with the world around them as humane and rational people. I don't
even have a problem with those who choose to go to church for the sense of
community and belonging, so long as they are welcoming to all and not
interested in changing the world according to biblical dogma. That is, as a
practical matter we only have proof of this life. As such we should spend
our time doing our best to add value to not only our own lives but those
around us. By judging those around us by a theological standard put in
place by Bronze Age barbarians - or any form of dogma really, including
atheist dogma (if there is such a thing) - we short-change everyone,
including ourselves.

So I guess the short answer is that I studied, and ultimately rejected,
biblical dogma. But again this doesn't mean I have a problem with God
(since as a practical matter God might as well not exist), or that I have
any desire to destroy faith. Faith and intuition are a worthwhile part of
the human experience, but we have no business at all judging by, or trying
to force others to conform to any form of dogmatic faith. The only standard
that has any practical application is that which increases our ability to
survive and thrive in this world. As far as morality, I think it is best
summed up by Sam Harris:

"The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the
happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the
happiness and suffering of others explains why we don't have moral
obligations toward rocks."

There are loads of other components to this de-conversion, but add up to the
same thing. This gives you the general idea of the process with some
specifics.

In the final analysis, I don't like calling myself an atheist. I am a
secular humanist who wants the best, not just for me, but for everyone.
That may sound a bit cheesy, but that's how I feel, even if I'm not always
good at expressing it. As far as judging others, as humans we can't avoid
doing that because we are constantly reconciling ourselves to our
surroundings. So I try to understand the positions of others, and agree
whenever possible, because I have an equal chance of being wrong. That is,
I try to judge a person by his or her actions, rather than by whatever God
they may want to believe in (or not). For all I know some day I'll be
standing before the Judgment Seat of God saying, "Well, I'll be damned." Of
course, if the Bible really is His word, He'll say, "Why, yes you are!"

In the meantime, I'm just going to continue being human.


Jeff
(aka UberGeek)
State - Maryland
Country - USA
How old were you when you became a Christian? Hard to say
How old were you when you ceased being a Christian? 35
What churches or organizations or labels have applied to you? 3
What labels, if any, would you apply to yourself now? None
Why did you become a Christian? Thought I was touched by God
Why did you de-convert? Many reasons.
email: jeffrey.samuelson at wvmart.ang.af.mil